Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How many online learners of English are there?

As part of my role as social media consultant for the British Council's English Innovation team, I've just been involved in an interesting discussion about how many learners of English it's possible for the British Council to reach online.

I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts about this with people here, as I'm be particularly interested in finding out from people if my thinking about this is completely off, or if I'm making a reasonable guestimate

So, here it is:

David Graddol estimated the figure of 1 billion 'learners' of English in English Next (2006), saying it would increase to 2 billion in 10-15 years.

The figure of 1,000,000,000 is interesting. The total population of the world is currently 6,894,200,000 (US Census Bureau). So that means an estimated 14.5% of the world is learning English.

When you look for estimated figures for 'speakers' of English, you find the following figures:
  • 371,000,000 people 'native speakers' of English
  • 760,000,000 people are 'speakers' (native or second language speakers), which is 11% world population (via Wolfram Alpha), so there are more people learning English than there are who speak it. 
As a side-note this makes me wonder...
  • When does a 'learner' of English become a 'speaker' of English? 
  • At what point do these learners of English stop? When they become a 'speaker' of English?

Then there is the question of how many of these learners of English use the Internet. There are 1,571,000,000 Internet users in the world (again via Wolfram Alpha), so that's 22.7% of the world's population.

How many of these speakers is it possible to reach online? Taking into account all of this, perhaps we can assume it's only possible to reach a maximum of 22.7% of the world's language learners, which means 220,000,000 people.

If we assume this, then the British Council currently reaches around 14,000,000 learners a year with its websites,  which is 6.4% of maximum possible audience. 

One of the ways that this guesstimate falls down, perhaps, is in the % calculation of language learners who use the Internet. My educated guess is that the % of learners who have access to the Internet is much lower than this- perhaps half the figure above (so, 110,000,000 people).

If this is so, then the websites reach an estimated 12.7% of  total possible online audience, which sounds like a more reasonable number.

As I'm no statistician, and Maths is one of my weak points, I'd love to hear if I'm completely off-track here . What do you think? Is this fuzzy thinking?


  1. I believe the % of EFL learners among inter users is (much) higher than population average. And vice versa: the % internet users among EFL learners must be higher than population average. So your estimates may be way off. But I have no clue to how we could get the 'correct' numbers...

  2. Interesting stats Graham and certainly shows trends however accurate or not the figures are. My own gut feeling is that there is a huge divide between those who are 'online' and those who are 'actively online' and therefore making progress. My own personal experience puts it at about 20% active and therefore really learning - am I being pessimistic? Teachers won't be surplus to requirement for a very long time yet!

  3. Thanks to you both for the feedback - I'm not sure if I agree with you, Wlodek.

    I think there is a large portion of the non-connected world that are learning English.But, as you say, there seems to be no way of doing this. I suppose if we had access to better data it would make it more accurate. For example, looking at he number of English learners per country and then contrasting this with the % of Internet users in that country...sounds like a long time and a lot of hard work to get this though...

    I also agree with you rliberni - I'm also not sure if the figure includes people 'with some access' to the Internet (i.e. via an Internet cafe or in a library)

    I don't think this is about making teachers redundant, though. I know from comments by English learners on the British Council's Facebook pages, that there are lots of learners who don't have access to language teachers (because of lack of money, circumstances, situation, etc) and who are doing their best to learn online. That's one of the the main reasons why the British Council has a web presence - you can't reach as many English language learners if you restrict yourself to teaching in a classroom.

  4. Anonymous10:47 am

    At the end, you just halve the total for no other reason than to arrive at a figure that sounds better to you. This is not statistically sound.

  5. lol anonymous - you are, of course, completely correct

  6. Hi Graham, interesting post but I think if you're group is serious about finding a workable figure for this you'll have to be a bit more rigorous.

    Starting with Gradol's 1bn figure seems excessive. This is similar to what inexperienced entrepreneurs do when they start doing business plans: "oh, there are 1 million people possibly interested in some way in my product". then they go to the bank and try and get a loan.

    You would need to start by defining what an 'online English learner' is. Is it someone who knows some English and reads and article on the BBC from time to time? A person who once in his lifetime googles 'learn English' or 'english verbs'? A person who tries to use Google Translator, even if he's not learning? A wordreference.com member or visitor?

    Maybe you could make a start by trying to put together a database of sites related to learning English in some way, then trying to work out visitor numbers and all the rest with Comcast numbers or Alexa.

    But then you'd have to keep asking lots more questions: do you include ALL visitors to a website as 'online english leaners', even the 60% who will visit for less than 5 seconds before clicking away somewhere else? How do you deal with repeat visitors?

    Do you only count the visitors who come back for X amount of time at least once a week? Could you get all of the websites in your new database to cough up such detailed statistics?

    And on and on and on…

    An interesting question to think about though!

  7. Thanks for this, Matthew - it is something that we need to think about because we need to know what is a reasonable number to be able to expect to reach with our websites.

    I think, for our point of view, 'online learners of English' are those who want to improve their knowledge of the language, and it encompasses both casual learners (i.e. those who aren't actively studying, but from time to time need some input), and those who are spending quite a lot of time trying to improve, and who may be taking classes too (either online or face-to-face).

    Your idea to go about things the other way around, trying to measure them from sites is interesting, but impractical in other way. For example, do you simply add together the numbers of visitors to these sites? What about those users who visit a number of different sites? How would you avoid counting these users more than once?

    I'm not sure anything other than a 'guesstimate' is possible, but I agree with you - it is worth thinking about, especially if, as in the case of our websites, it is the audience we are aiming to reach

  8. Thanks for the interesting statistics! It makes me keep in mind that the US needs to become more bilinguial, as 11% is such a small number of speakers in the grand scheme of things! I also liked the questions you posed to yourself about when "learners" become "speakers." This is an interesting distinction...and as a post graduate student I feel that I am still learning things about the English language all the time (English is my L1), and so perhaps there is no precise point of cross-over between learning and speaking.

  9. Very interesting statistics, Graham! At IATEFL Ceri Jones said she prefers the term English users to learners. I liked that! We now have about 35, 000 members on EnglishClub's social network MyEC, but it's hard to know how many are active. Personally, I'm more interested in working with those who are active and building a tribe. These core members can then help me show others how much you can be learned online. It's amazing what disconnected learners can do and how motivated they are!

  10. Interesting, Tara, but surely there's a big difference between English users and learners? I'm an English user, but not a learner, for example :-)

    35,000 is a lot, but you're right - there'll be a large number of inactive users, which is just how things work - the key is to have a core of active users, as these then generate interest and persuade others to contribute

  11. I must say that more or less the statistics you have presented seemed factual. It is really true that there are only a few who are native speakers of english but there are a gazillion who wants to know and learn english more.

  12. I don't even think that you can give a statistics on how many want to learn english since even a pre school child right now can add into that learning process especially like us whose english is not our native tongue. A child and adult from all walks of like can very much add to the number of users.

  13. Nice of information. This is very helpful for me and new English learners.

  14. The numbers of English learners can not be defined perfectly as Charles mentioned in his comment. Although this post gives us an idea of how many can they be. I think the learners become a speaker when they start to speak English without any difficulties as well as when they can express their feelings fully through it. Thanks for the valuable information. It helped me very much of knowing the fact.