The finding was in Education First’s English Proficiency Index, a ranking of English-language abilities worldwide.
Between 2009 and 2011, the survey examined 1.7 million people in 54 countries in which English is not the first language.
Results showed that the 11 countries with the highest English proficiency are all European. Sweden was first, followed by Denmark and the Netherlands. China ranked 36th, which was the second-lowest in Asia.
Education First is one of the world’s largest private education companies.
“China dropped from 29th last year to 36th this year in ranking,” said Caroline Engstler, a senior language education specialist with EF, who assisted with the survey.
“Part of the reason we noticed is that this year, listening comprehension takes up a larger percentage in the survey.” Engstler also said that in China, learning English usually ends once schooling is completed.
“Compared with people in European countries, people in Asia do not work as hard to improve their English once they step into a career,” Engstler said.
Zheng Zhaoyu, the deputy general manager of the training department at Education International Cooperation Group, agreed that Chinese people have low proficiency in English.
“Compared with many other countries, like Singapore and India, China lacks an environment to practice English. Students have few opportunities to practice English outside of school,” he said, adding that learning a language requires such practice.
He also said many Chinese students study English for tests. However, many well-recognised tests, such as the national college entrance exam, still focus on reading and writing instead of listening and speaking, which leads to students failing to practice listening and speaking, and that leads to low proficiency scores, Zheng said.
Education International Cooperation Group is preparing its own report on English proficiency of students from first- and second-tier cities who study overseas. The report, which the group plans to release before the summer of 2013, will help parents and students make decisions when they plan to study overseas.
Participants in the Education First survey were mostly those who finished their tests on the EF website, or those who came to EF for learning inquiries and took the survey as a placement test. In other words, they were people who are willing to learn the language.
The survey evaluates grammar, reading comprehension and listening comprehension, but speaking English is not included in the test as it is difficult to evaluate in an online platform. The EF English proficiency index was first released in 2011, which indicated the English proficiency level of people in 44 countries worldwide from 2007 to 2009.
The survey also shows that residents of Singapore and Malaysia have the highest English proficiency in Asia.
Cheng Zhaoxiang, dean of the school of foreign languages of Peking University, said that English learning in both educational institutions and the public environment still has room for improvement.
“Especially in the Chinese mainland, English is still rarely used in our daily life because people can read only Chinese on many items such as road signs and food wrappers,” he said.
“Also, in many other non-English-speaking countries, most teachers giving English lessons in universities are from English-speaking countries, whereas in China, English lessons in universities are still taught by Chinese.”
It also shows that in Asia, people with the highest English proficiency are those who just graduated from high school, and the proficiency index starts to decrease since then.
But Education First’s Engstler said China’s proficiency situation could change for the better.
“China is a country with the largest number of English learners in the world,” she said. “Though its English proficiency still needs to be improved, it is now one of the most important language education markets worldwide. About 100,000 native-English speakers are teaching in China at the moment.”