CEFR Language Exam Resource Centre
CEFR Language Exam Resource Centre

Why the ESL Market is set to boom in the next 10 years

Why the ESL Market is set to boom in the next 10 years

  • According to the British Council, approximately 1.7 billion people were learning and using English worldwide in 2015. 
  • English language instruction for non-native speakers is a $63 billion a year industry. (For comparison, consider the U.S. education industry’s revenue is worth a mere $1.3 billion.)
  • Roughly 100,000 new English teaching positions open every year.
  • Established ESL exam providers like Cambridge & IELTS, British Council & Trinity are expanding their operations, growing in size and increasing their global penetration. Cambridge Assessment has more than trebled in size since 2002 and in August 2016 to July 2017 generated revenue of over £413 million.

Nearly one-third of the world’s population (2.5 billion) will soon be studying English. According to a British Council Study, the new growth markets for ESL are largely outside the traditional countries of the developed world. China and India show an enormous scale of demand, whilst being quite different in terms of demographic change and educational culture. However, it is in the tier of large countries below these giants where the most astonishing growth is forecast.  At least double-digit growth – in some cases up to 40 per cent –in demand for English in Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil and Mexico, as well as the large African countries, particularly Nigeria, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Even in English-speaking countries – USA, UK & Australia – the ESL industry is predicted to grow.

Good news, surely, for ESL teaching professionals and institutions. But what is fuelling this predicted growth?

1. Global internet access: “The Rising Billions”

While the internet may seem ubiquitous, it has only until recently connected the wealthy developed world. In 2010, 1.8 billion people were connected. Five years later, about 2.8 billion were connected, and now, in 2018, it has recently been revealed by a global digital report that 4 billion people are online. This is an incredible number considering the fact that many economists were predicting merely 3 years ago that this number would not be reached until 2030.

However, considering the world’s population is now 7.6 billion, this means that 50% of the world are yet to join the global marketplace. But they soon will. Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, for example, is confident that by 2020, over 90% of the world’s population will be online. A white paper by Cisco Visual Networking Index, collaborates this claim, stating that 3 to 5 billion new consumers are about to enter the global marketplace. While forecasting such large numbers is incredibly complex, historical growth rates have always been within 10% of their forecast.

These new consumers,  “The rising billions”, as Diamandis calls them, will represent tens of trillions of dollars, providing “a mega-surge to the global economy”.

“The implications of 5+ billion connected minds are staggering. They will drive the need to bank the unbanked (probably with some bitcoin derivative), create an innovation explosion, and drive a new wave of entrepreneurship and global competition.”  – Peter Diamandis

Who are “the rising billions”?

The majority of new internet user growth will occur in low and middle-income countries in Asia where nearly 700 million new internet users will connect. This growth is primarily driven by India and China, where over 276 million and over 238 million users, respectively, will connect. But other countries in Asia will see significant internet user growth, such as in Indonesia, where over 87 million people will start connecting to content and services over IP-networks.

As a region, Africa and the Middle East has the fastest growing population of internet users with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.8%. Over 178 million new users will connect in the region. Central and South America will also see a substantial rise, with over 109 million new users connected over the five-year time period.

In high-income countries, the majority of populations are already using the internet. The VNI forecast points to a current adoption rate of 89% in North America and 81% in Western Europe. There are, however, significant pockets of people that are not able to access reliable high-speed internet service in high-income countries. The US stands out in this regard as over the 2015-2020 period, another 23 million people will be connected to the internet for the first time.

What impact will the “rising billions” have on the ESL market?

English has consolidated its dominance as the language of the Internet. David Graddol, a linguist and researcher, claims that 80 per cent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English. Another recent study states that 51.2% of the world’s top 10 million websites is English, dwarfing the next language, Russia, at 6.8%.

Thanks to the internet, the rise of social media, the speed and spread of global communications technology and the increasingly globalised and interdependent global economy, English now allows the rapid cross-pollination of ideas and innovation around the world and the development of a new kind of supranational single market in knowledge and ideas.

From citizen journalism in war-torn countries to food blogs featuring traditional recipes, people opt for English when they want to increase the chances of their content being shared around the world.  For example, protestors involved in the uprisings in North Africa in 2011, whilst using French and Arabic to gain local and regional support, switched to English to influence the wider global community. One such activist, who had taken first to the streets and then to social media and the internet during the Libyan revolution, was asked why he had chosen English when Arabic had served him well on the streets. His answer was clear and concise: ‘Because that’s where we go when we want to influence the world.’

Learning English can, therefore, help people communicate more effectively online while also giving access to a much wider choice of content. And with an estimated 1.7 billion English language learners across the globe, English looks likely to remain the ‘universal language’ of the internet for the foreseeable future.


Global Internet Projects

The internet’s irresistible march is being further aided by 5 huge companies/organisation pumping billions of dollars into global internet initiatives.

1. Facebook: Free basics


Free basics is a partnership between Facebook and six companies (Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm) that plans to bring affordable internet access to developing countries by increasing efficiency, and facilitating the development of new business models around the provision of Internet access. The service is now active in 65 countries and used by over 50m people.

Kenyan users can choose an interface in English or Kiswahili, but most of the services are offered in English only. In Ghana, everything is in English, even though other languages, such as Twi and Hausa, are widely spoken.

2. OneWeb — WorldVu Satellites

The OneWeb satellite constellation is a proposed satellite internet constellation of approximately 882 satellites expected to provide global Internet broadband service to individual consumers as early as 2019. The company’s business plan is to attempt to “reach hundreds of millions of potential users residing in places without [existing] broadband access.”

3. Project Loon – Google

Project Loon is a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disastersMost recently, Project Loon successfully delivered internet connectivity to 200,000 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

4. Starlink  – Space X

Elon Musk, the CEO of Space X, plans to launch 11,000 satellites in two constellations which he intends will deliver terrestrial-quality broadband to anywhere on the globe, from the Arctic circle to the central African jungle.

5. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI)

The A4AI is a coalition of private sector, public sector, and civil society organisations who have come together to advance the shared aim of affordable access to both mobile and fixed-line Internet in developing countries.

Rather than offering technological solutions, the A4AI are tackling the issue through policy and regulatory reforms which can unlock technological advances, reduce the cost to connect, and enable universal access.  

2. Urbanisation & middle-class growth

The growth in the demand for English is closely related to one particularly important dimension of globalization: the trend towards increased urbanisation. English is widely used in business, education and government, and as such, is the language of the urban middle classes. Thus, as more people flock to cities, the more the demand for English increases.

By 2050 close to 70% of humanity is expected to live in cities and towns.


Both Indian and Chinese governments see the enlargement of the middle classes as a means of increasing domestic consumption and so attracting inward investment from multinational companies, whilst providing a stabilising effect on society.

The rate of urbanisation in China, despite the size of its rural population, is one of the highest in the world. China is already well on the way to becoming the world’s biggest market for pretty much anything you can think of. Today, China has 55 million middle-class households: by 2025, this is expected to more than quadruple to nearly 280 million, with a predicted 300 million people expected to move to the cities.


India’s potential as en ESL market is sometimes ignored because people regard it as an English-speaking country. Whilst it is true that India has pockets of english speakers, the most spoken languages in India, according to census data, are Hindi (422m), Bengali (83m), Telugu (75m), Marathi (71m), Tamil (60m), Urdu (51m), Gujarati (46m), and Punjabi (29m). The statistics on English speaking ability tends to be unreliable for a host of political reasons, but it is generally accepted that somewhere in the range of 30% are able, to varying degrees, speak English—though only a third have some semblance of reading and writing aptitude.

In the mid-1980s less than 10% of the Indian population was regarded as middle class, and only half of those were English speakers. The Indian middle class has since grown dramatically – to around 20% or 220 million people. By 2030, as the graph shows, this figure is projected to pass 40% .

A McKinsey study suggests that if India grows at its current pace, the average household income will triple, making the country the world’s fifth-largest consumer economy in 8 years from now. Another report by CII and BCG state that Indian consumer spending is likely to touch $3.6 trillion by 2025 and India’s share of global consumption would touch close to 5.8 percent in just 4 years from now.

Looking at the growth of the “Rising Billion” in India and their disposal incomes, these millions of people will be truly global citizens, demanding the best in education, design, technology, performance, products and services. All of these things will be English.


Since the mid-1990s Africa’s urban population has almost doubled in size, and in less than 20 years from now, one out of every two people in Africa is likely to live in an urban area. By 2030 Africa will host six of the world’s 41 megacities (with a population of over ten million people). According to a study by the Institute for Security studies: “Africa’s future is urban, as cities and towns will increasingly shape how people live on the continent.

For example, A Euromonitor report for the British Council says ‘Up to 18 million Nigerians are expected to move to urban areas over 2009–2015. Urban dwellers have far higher levels of exposure to English, and are also better placed for access to schools than their rural counterparts.’

3. Dominance of and Demand for English – The “operating system” for the global conversation

English is the dominant international language of the 21st century. From its beginnings as the language of international trade under the British Empire, and its boom during the postwar economic expansion of the US, English is now spoken at a useful level by a quarter of the world’s population. As the language of business, politics, diplomacy, science, technology, travel, information technology, entertainment and culture, it has increasingly become the operating system for the global conversation.

There may be more native speakers of Chinese, Spanish or Hindi, but it is English they speak when they talk across cultures, and English they teach their children to help them become citizens of an increasingly intertwined world.

“In developed and developing countries alike, for the investor, the academic, the civil servant, the teacher, the performer, the politician, the secretary, the diplomat, the activist, the schoolchild, English creates opportunities otherwise impossible”- Madhushri Kallimani “THE YESTERDAY AND TODAY OF ENGLISH: A JOURNEY

Despite this importance, global English proficiency rates are still relatively low, especially in the countries that are rapidly expanding in terms of population and GDP.   The English Proficiency Index shows how few countries have reached “very high” or “high” standards of English. This shows how much more potential for growth there still is in the ESL market around the world. 

The following sections describe how the government, business and education sectors are contributing to the demand for English.

Governments & ESL

Emerging economies and developing countries increasingly recognise the economic value of producing large numbers of skilled graduates able to communicate in English. Jobs, economic opportunity and wealth creation are critical to stability. Countries with a low proficiency in English have uniformly low levels of exports per capita. A focus on improved language skills, integrating English into the curriculum from the primary or even pre-school years, helps attract foreign investment, further increasing the need for English speakers; and a strong export sector in services helps create a middle class, strengthening spending and growing the national economy.

Recent government initiatives

  • Japan (a nation of 127,000,000 people) has made English language instruction a required subject in primary education. In addition, millions of Japanese adults also take English classes each year.
  • In 2009, Mexico introduced plans for more than 12 million school children to be learning English within 6 years.  According to the British Council, similar plans have been enacted in dozens of other countries worldwide.
  • The Russian government has stated that fluent English will in future be a requirement to become a civil servant.
  • In Vietnam, English has become compulsory from the fourth grade..
  • The government of Thailand has set the ambitious goal of teaching English to 14 million students in 34,000 state schools, from pre-primary to university age;
  • The Kazakhstan government demanded  30,000 more English speakers for Expo 2017, an international exhibition on sustainable energy  held in Astana.
  • When South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, English was announced as the new national language of unity.

Businesses & ESL

The economic incentive to learn English is compelling and multinational companies are increasingly mandating English as their corporate language of choice. An increasing number of companies – Nokia, SAP, Heinkeken, Samsung and Renault amongst them – have recognised the long-term advantages to productivity and growth that adopting English as a common company language can have. In a 2012 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 70 per cent of executives said their workforce will need to master English to realise corporate expansion plans, and a quarter said more than 50 per cent of their total workforce would need English ability. For other sectors, the English language is an indispensable part of their offer.

English is now seen less as an optional “foreign” language and more as a core skill for the present and future generations . Or, as an Education First study puts it, “a basic skill needed for the entire workforce, in the same way that literacy has been transformed in the last two centuries from an elite privilege into a basic requirement for informed citizenship.”

  • Some Swedish companies, for example, use English within the workplace, even though they are in Sweden, because so much of their business is done, through the Internet and other communications, with the outside world.
  • English is particularly important for management jobs. In Cameroon, “[a]ll senior-level positions advertised within the period of this research required English “.
  • Approximately 21 of 30 companies interviewed in Nigeria and Pakistan said that English is crucial for company growth, as it helps them trade more widely on an international scale. In line with this, an average of 22 of 30 companies said that English was important when hiring a new employee. This underlines the fact that English language skills enhance business and trade, while also improving an individual’s economic condition.
  • The amount of foreign investment inflows from English-speaking countries such as the USA and the UK are typically highest in those countries where English is the lingua franca; in Bangladesh, Nigeria and Pakistan the share of  Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) originating from English-speaking countries is 41%, 35% and 33%. By contrast, largely French-speaking Cameroon and Rwanda lose out, with only 2% and 1% of their total FDI inflows coming from English-speaking countries. However, those other markets investing in Cameroon and Rwanda, such as the UAE investing into Cameroon, will communicate in English as well, necessitating a strong grasp of the language within the countries.
  • The ability to communicate well in English also translates directly into higher pay. As a report named The Benefits of the English Language for Individuals and Societies affirms: “individuals with strong English skills typically earn as much as 30 per cent more in terms of gross annual salary than non-English speakers, with their English skills one of the leading factors behind this.”

Education & ESL

Loren Griffith, Director of the International Strategy team at Oxford University, sums it up in these terms: ‘Today most of the world’s best universities are in English speaking countries, and that is no coincidence. English has become the lingua franca of academia”.

Other university systems acknowledge the centrality of English. Jean-Loup Salzmann, chairman of the Conference of French University Presidents, notes that ‘In any French medical laboratory, more than half the people speak only English. The evaluation of our research is in English, our European projects are in English, and when professors from abroad are welcomed to our universities, we speak to them in English.’ Indeed, the law requiring higher education instruction to be principally in French is now being modified in an attempt to reverse the decline in the number of foreign students at French universities.

4. Migration Patterns in Developed English-speaking countries

The USA, UK and Australia are currently undergoing migration patterns which are increasing the number of nonenglish speaking immigrants. The governments are recognising the need for ESL programmes and are investing large sums of money.

U.S.A. & ESL

According to an article in the Washington Times, a massive 21 percent of U.S. residents now speak a language other than English at home. Although many of those are bilingual, more than 25 million residents say they speak English at levels they would rate as less than “very well,” according to a report by Center for Immigration Studies, which is based on the latest Census Bureau figures. Just as startling is the growth of foreign languages among school-age children. In California, 44 percent of children eligible for primary or secondary school speak something other than English at home. In Texas, the figure is 36 percent, and in Nevada, it’s 33 percent.

English learners (ELs) is the most rapidly growing subgroup of public school students across the United States—the number of ELs grew by roughly 60 percent over the past decade. ELs currently account for nearly 10 percent of all students nationwide.

At the turn of the 21st century, a national survey reported 41 percent of public school teachers in a variety of locales taught students with limited English proficiency. Fewer than a third of those teachers had even a modest level of training to support ELs. More recent surveys put the share of teachers with at least one EL over 55 percent.

Recent federal policies are raising the prominence of ELs. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires all schools to begin reporting EL students’ progress on both their English proficiency and core tested subjects, and substantially increases the funding targeted toward this group. Yet, no new federal policies have prioritized teacher training for ELs, either pre-service or in-service.

It is possible that ESSA’s new accountability requirements and flow of funds could encourage states to be more mindful of teacher quality for EL students. But despite the critical importance of training teachers to meet the needs of all students, including ELs, raising the bar for teacher training and professional development remains elusive across multiple levels of teacher training and school governance.

72.4% of the visitors to TpT are from USA, spending  Teachers from the USA have proved they are willing to pay for quality resources designed by other teachers


The UK’s ESL industry has grown by 34 per cent since 2000 and is currently worth over £2 billion annually to the UK economy. This figure is expected to rise to nearly £3 billion by 2020.

Moreover, a recent article reported that the number of schoolchildren who do not speak English as their first language has soared by two-thirds in the past decade to nearly 1.3million.

New figures revealed that English is no longer the first language for the majority of pupils in more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools, equivalent to one in nine.

Data shows the proportion of people across England who say English is not their main language, ranging from 0.7 per cent in Redcar and Cleveland to 41.4 per cent in Newham Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2270638/Revealed-The-language-map-England-shows-40-people-say-English-mother-tongue.html#ixzz5CkAkXHwx

Australia & ESL

There has been a steady decline in the percentage of Australians who speak only English at home since at least 2001. According to the 2001 census, 20% of the population didnt speak English at home. 10 years later, that number had risen to 23%. According to the 2016 census, 30% of people in Australia use English as a second language. The percentage does not take into account those in Australia who are not included in the census data, and whose numbers probably include more nonenglish speakers.

Approximately one in four students in Australian schools is learning English as a second or additional language or dialect. These learners come from diverse backgrounds and include children born in Australia, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and migrants, refugees and international students born overseas.

In response to increasing numbers of nonenglish speakers, and proof of The Australian government’s commitment to investing in ESL, The English as an addition language New Arrivals Program (NAP) was set up to provides initial, on-arrival intensive English tuition for newly arrived students at the beginning and emerging levels of English language proficiency. Support is provided to newly arrived students in primary schools, high schools and Intensive English Centres in order to develop their English language skills so that they are able to participate in learning with their peers in mainstream classes.

5. The Growing Demand for Officially Recognised ESL Exams

The main providers of  ESL exams demonstrate annual growth in terms of profit, global penetration,  and candidate numbers. This is indicative of the increasing global demand for officially recognised ESL exams.


Cambridge Assessment English works in more than 130 countries. Over five million people every year take its exams, which are recognised by over 20,000 universities, employers and governments.

Powerful global social and economic drivers are creating opportunities for the Group’s worldwide success and underpin our prospects for sustainable growth. They include a huge growth in demand for international education fuelled by globalisation, the continuing spread of digital and the steadily increasing use of English in every part of the world (an estimated 1.5 billion people are currently learning English).

The number of students travelling overseas for their education almost doubled to 3.7 million between 2000 and 2009 and is likely to rise to seven million by 2020. The global market for English-medium pathway programmes is already worth $1.4 billion.

Meanwhile, recognition has continued to grow for Cambridge Assessment English. More than 20,000 organisations around the world rely on Cambridge English Qualifications as proof of English language ability. This includes recognition from 99 of the Top 100 universities listed by the UK’s Times Higher Education magazine.

At the end of summer 2017 Cambridge Assessment English marked a milestone with the announcement that three million International English Language Testing System (IELTS) tests had been taken in the past year. IELTS, which Cambridge Assessment English jointly owns with the British Council and IDP: IELTS Australia, was established in 1989 and has become a household name around the world. It is the most widely used test of English for migration to English-speaking countries and is recognised by more than 10,000 universities, schools, employers and “It is the most widely used test of English for migration to English-speaking countries and is recognised by more than 10,000 universities, schools, employers and immigration bodies…” immigration bodies, including all universities in Australia and the UK and many of the leading institutions in the USA

Trinity College London ESOL

Now over 850,000 people take a Trinity exam in over 60 countries each year.

  • U.K: Trinity’s GESE and ISE qualifications are accepted by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) as evidence of English language proficiency for visa purposes.
  • Spain: Trinity collaborates with regional governments on bilingual projects at both primary and secondary levels in the state, state-subsidised and private sectors through various agreements across the whole country.
  • Italy: Currently over 1,500 university departments/courses throughout Italy award credits or give some type of recognition to Trinity qualifications — typically for levels ISE I and above.
  • Hong Kong: Trinity’s English language exams are recognised for the Hong Kong English in the Workplace Campaign, a government-led initiative to increase public awareness of the importance of English skills for the workplace
  • China: Trinity exams are also used by the Chinese Athletes Education Foundation and GESE exams are used and recognised by the Beijing Education Examinations Authority and the Hubei Education Examinations Authority.
  • India: Trinity has worked closely with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in India to develop a communicative test of English for students in secondary schools. This test is now taken by two million students in India and beyond.


There are 4,500 TOEFL test centers in 165 countries and so far 30 million students have taken the exam. Whilst not as popular in the European market, especially compared with IELTS, the TOEFL exam is international recognised and is widely taken the Asia and the USA and continues to expand.

More than 10,000 universities and colleges accept TOEFL test scores. In addition, agencies and institutions rely on TOEFL scores as well:

  • Immigration departments use them to issue residential and work visas.
  • Medical and licensing agencies use them for professional certification purposes.
  • Individuals use them to measure their progress in learning English.


As the language of business, politics and diplomacy, science, technology, travel, information technology, entertainment and culture, English has definitively become the operating system for the global conversation. Access to the global conversation will be granted in the next decade to 3-5 billion new consumers. Exposure to the English dominated world combined with ever-increasing rates of urbanisation, adoption og middle-class lifestyles and disposable income, will result in a huge boost to the ESL market. These trends are mutually reinforcing – they are both the cause of and the the result of each other. 

Growing in tandem with great demand for English is a great demand for professional ESL teachers.  Although there are some 12 million English teachers active in the world today, this masks a huge global shortage.

  • 80% of English teachers abroad in non-native English speaking countries – particularly in public schools – are not native English speakers themselves because there are simply not enough native English speaking teachers to meet demand.
  • According to an article on Forbes.com, there are an estimated 100,000 native English speakers are teaching English in China.  That article was published in 2012 and that number has certainly grown since.
  • In major European cities like Prague, Madrid and Rome, approximately 3,000 – 5,000 native speaking English teachers are working at any given time; each of these cities is home to 50-150 private language institutes with each school employing between 5-25 teachers at a time. A recent manual check by ITA staff found more than 400 language schools in Madrid alone,
  • These numbers typically triple in major Asian cities like Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai that have over 10 million people and are home to 1,000 language schools employing up to 15,000 foreign English teachers.
  • An estimated 24,000 native English speakers work as English teachers abroad just in the small country of South Korea each year.
  • In both China and South Korea, approximately 1,000 new English teachers are hired each month. In China, this number will likely double in the coming years.

Although there is an increased demand for English teachers, expectations for qualifications and professional credentials have risen too. It’s no longer enough to be a native English speaker to be a truly effective ESL teacher.  The global market for digital English language learning products and services reached $1.31 billion in 2011. The worldwide five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is 14.5% and revenues reached $2.58 billion in 2016. But high quality English teaching – whether face-to-face, ‘blended’ or virtual – will still need real teachers, and the international employment opportunities for talented, professional ESL teachers remain substantial.

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