What is the difference between EFL and ESL?

As English is so widely used throughout much of the world in the media, government, and business, it is no surprise that hundreds of millions of people are currently learning it in countries worldwide. To service this huge demand there are hundreds of thousands of teachers, both native and non-native English speakers, working in schools, language centers, private businesses, colleges, universities, and virtual classrooms in almost every country you can think of. Although most of these teachers have a very strong understanding of the English language, they don’t all necessarily understand the wide array of acronyms used within the industry, such as EFL, ESL, TEFL, TESL, TESOL, ELT, etc.

What do EFL and ESL actually stand for?

EFL and ESL are used to refer to the two main types of English language learning that occur around the world. While it is not essential to understand these definitions, as they are regularly used interchangeably by many people working in this field, it never hurts to be clued up when it comes to job interviews, conversing with management, or simply when bantering with work colleagues. The technical definitions are:

  • EFL (English as a Foreign Language) is used to refer to the study of English in any country where English is not commonly spoken.
  • ESL (English as a Second Language) is used to refer to the study of English in a country where English is commonly spoken.

What are the main differences between EFL and ESL?

Apart from the technical definitions shown above, there are a few differences that separate these two types of English language study. Firstly, learning ESL is naturally a much more immersive experience than EFL as students will be exposed to the language throughout their everyday lives. It is clearly much easier to pick up a language when you are surrounded by it at work, in the local media, when shopping, in social situations, etc, than it is when you only speak or hear the language during the few hours a week you spend in an EFL classroom.

The other main difference is on a cultural level. Students learning English in an EFL classroom will learn the language needed to hold a conversation, but it is much harder to learn how the language is really used in social situations in native speaking countries. Once again, ESL students will have regular exposure to real life situations that allow them to practice what they have learned in the classroom in everyday life. Many people learning English in an EFL environment may not even get to converse with native English speakers at all as teachers are often non-native speakers in these scenarios.

Teaching strategies for English as a second language

As ESL students have a genuine need to learn English in order to get by in their daily lives, it is essential that they are taught practical areas of language use in the early stages. Things such as asking for directions, discussing prices, filling out forms, etc, will go a long way to helping new arrivals fit into an unfamiliar environment. However, important areas of the language such as the tenses and other grammar subjects should not be overlooked as these will be just as important once the basics have been mastered.

Another area that is important in an ESL environment is learning about the local culture. During normal lessons it is extremely helpful to include content related to the history of the country you are in, its festivals and celebrations, and common etiquette to ensure the students are able to quickly adapt to life in their adopted country.

Teaching strategies for English as a foreign language

Probably the biggest challenge facing many EFL students and teachers is motivation, due to the lack of regular exposure to English. To tackle this important issue it is vital that the teacher implements a range of tactics that are designed to keep the morale of the class at a high level. Lessons and the individual activities within them should always be engaging and of interest to students. Using culturally relevant things such as music, film, and literature can all be a great help, as can the simple act of conversing with native English speakers. Native English speaking teachers will obviously have an advantage here, but you can also introduce activities such as English speaking pen pals and inviting non-teachers to visit the class and get involved.

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