What are EFL and ESL?

February 6, 2014

So you’re thinking of becoming an English teacher. More specifically an English teacher to non-native speakers of the language. You may notice two different terms associated with English language teaching that keep popping up from time to time: ESL (English as a Second or Subsequent Language) and EFL (English as a Foreign Language).

For a lot of people EFL is a term that they may have heard of but aren’t overly familiar with, and I know that I’m often asked what exactly it is. It’s also commonly confused with ESL, which is similar, but not the same.

What are EFL and ESL?

EFL – English as a Foreign Language
EFL is found in places where the dominant language of the community is not English. I am currently teaching EFL in Japan, and almost all of my students are native Japanese speakers. Other countries where EFL is commonly found include South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.

ESL – English as a Second (or Subsequent) Language
ESL is taught to non-native speakers of English who are living in a country where the dominant language is English. Therefore, many people who study in places like Canada, Australia, England, and the United States are studying ESL.

What’s the difference?

While the differences may seem minute, there are a few things that set each type of learner apart. Knowing the differences can help EFL and ESL teachers plan lessons that will be most effective in helping their students achieve their goals.

  • The Classroom
    In an EFL classroom, you’ll probably notice that most of the students have the same cultural background, and the same first language. Their skills, and experience with English will likely be similar.

    Students in an ESL classroom will usually come from a variety of different cultural backgrounds and first languages. This also means that their experience and skills are often extremely varied.

  • Motivation
    ELF learners usually have an interest in English, or need it for academic or travel purposes. In my experience, many of my students are studying English because it appears on many important tests, such as entrance exams. Most of my older students study because they enjoy English and they love to travel. A few of my students want to pursue careers in which English is a requirement, or would be beneficial, such as a flight attendant.

    ESL students often have higher motivation because they need English to survive and to be successful in their current environment. Some ESL students are studying to attend university, others may be trying to get a better job, and there are always those who want to learn the language so that the adjustment to their new country is easier and more enjoyable.

  • Needs
    Those who study EFL often get more instruction in reading and writing, and therefore need more speaking and listening practice. They don’t speak, or hear natural English on a daily basis, and they don’t usually have ample opportunities for communicating with native English speakers. EFL students need to experience real English if their goal is to be an effective communicator.

    Students enrolled in an ESL program are already living in an English speaking environment. They hear, and speak English pretty much every single day. For students who are planning to stay in the country, being able to accomplish everyday tasks such as shopping, going to the doctor, doing their taxes, and applying for jobs. After mastering the basics, students who are in university will likely need to learn the art of academic writing. Understanding the culture of their new community is also very important.

Many teachers go back and forth between teaching EFL and ESL, and most activities can be appropriately tweaked for one or the other. One key in ensuring that your students get the most out of their time with you is understanding their needs.

In my experience, being an English teacher has been extremely rewarding, and I can’t wait to see what else my students go on to do with their English skills!

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