What evidence exists to show that increasing the English language skills of a society will generate economic activity in a country?’ by Dr Elizabeth J. Erling, Open University, UK.

Research on returns on investment to English language teaching is relatively new, but is growing. There has been some research conducted at a national level, looking at whether countries who invest in English language teaching in their curriculum see a return on that investment. Ku and Zussman (2010) constructed a dataset based on mean national scores in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) spanning thirty years in 100 countries in which English is not a first language (including 15 countries in the MENA region). Controlling for other factors influencing trade, they demonstrate that English proficiency in a nation has a strong and statistically significant effect on bilateral trade flows.

 In another study, Lee (2012: 18) uses GDP per capita and TOEFL test scores as measures to explore the relationship between English and economic growth in 43 countries (including 4 in MENA: Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Syria). He, however, finds that it is only countries in Asia and Europe where higher levels of English proficiency among populations is likely to result in positive economic growth. This, he argues, shows that English proficiency is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic development in the countries he studied, and concludes:

English proficiency will have a positive impact on economic development if the increase in English proficiency is complemented with a minimum threshold of physical capital, technology, political stability, good governance and other factors. The improvement in English proficiency without sufficient accumulation of physical capital, technology and social capital will not add significantly to the economic development of a country.

This is an important finding to keep in mind in the MENA region – that investment in English and skills development alone is not likely to result in economic growth if not accompanied by other measures. Research such as Lee’s reminds us that returns to education and English language learning are different in different contexts, and depend on a number of other contextual factors. This is why it is important to collect data and do research in each particular context, as there can be national and regional differences that need to be accounted for in the design and implementation of educational policy. This is also why any effort to improve educational quality and English language teaching in MENA should be embedded in a wide r programme for economic development and reform.