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© 2020, © 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. This paper provides a comparative analysis of the drivers of English Language Competence (ELC) in a representative sample of European adolescents. School factors–such as English instruction time and English onset–are found to play an important role, especially in countries whose official languages are more distant from English. However, schools do not fully compensate for disparities in ELC. Gender, parental education and parental socioeconomic status are strongly associated with students’ ELC. Particularly, girls and children from more privileged social backgrounds show systematically higher ELC, even net of school factors and reading ability in their own country language. The role of family background is stronger in countries with languages that are more distant from English, suggesting that family resources are needed more when the skills are more difficult to acquire elsewhere. Finally, informal English exposure through media and cultural products is strongly and positively associated with ELC. This holds true in countries with both high and low linguistic distance from English, suggesting that schools should promote more informal English learning to increase overall ELC and reduce social disparities.

Original publication




Journal article


Research Papers in Education

Publication Date



1 - 29