What is the difference between ESL and EFL?

By | December 22, 2016

In a profession littered with acronyms, it’s often difficult to know whether you’re teaching EFL, ESL, EAL, ESOL, or something else! So what exactly is the difference between ESL and EFL?

Well, as you probably already know ESL stands for English as a Second Language and EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. Although you are still either learning or teaching English, these two acronyms have a slightly different meaning.

What is the difference between ESL or EFL?


EFL is taught in countries where the native language is not English. For example, if you are learning English in Thailand the local language is Thai and you’d therefore be studying English as a Foreign Language. In most cases, students learning EFL in Thailand will often be in a class with other students that all speak Thai as their first language. Therefore, when teaching EFL, you will usually be in front of a class that all share the same first language.

ESL, on the other hand, is used where English is being taught to students who are from a non-English speaking country, but studying English in an English speaking country. For example, a Japanese person studying English in London. In this instance, it’s far more common to have students that come from different countries and therefore have different languages as their first language.

Although these two terms are similar, you can see that the difference between the two terms is dependent on where you are learning English.

English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is a universally accepted term that is used around the world, but English as a Second Language requires a little more discussion because it isn’t used by everybody. One criticism of the term ESL is it might not be a second language for somebody, it might be a 3rd, 4th or even a 5th language for some people. Therefore, English as a Second Language probably isn’t the best way to describe the subject.

As a result of this criticism some countries have adopted different ways to describe people learning English in native English speaking countries. The United Kingdom, New Zealand and Ireland now use the term ‘English for Speakers of Other Languages’ (ESOL), and the expression ‘English as an Additional Language’ (EAL) is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. The United States, Canada and Australia continue to use ESL, but ‘English Language Learner’ (ELL) is now more widely used to describe a student learning ESL (Wikipedia).

Unfortunately, there is no umbrella term that can be used to cover all of these different terms. Although, ESL is widely understood it is probably the term that most people would use. TESOL on the other hand is becoming more universally accepted around the world and is most likely to become the universal term for this area of study.

I’ve used ESL in as the title for this blog as it’s the term that most people recognise, but I prefer the term EAL because it doesn’t assume that English is the second language of the student, instead it implies that somebody is learning English as an additional language, whether that be their 2nd, 3rd, 4th or whatever number it might be for the student.

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4 thoughts on “What is the difference between ESL and EFL?

  1. Ina'm

    Hi every body
    the difference between these two terms can be explained simply by giving the following two examples :
    Iam a MA student learning English in my country, in my college and with my native speaker friends, so i’m studying FL .But in case I have a chance to learn English in England for instance ,then it is a SL.

  2. Alla Baksh

    Hi there..

    I’m actually not very clear about the ESL vs EFL.. Say for example, I’m in Malaysia.. Malaysia is a multi-cultural & multi lingual society. We have the malays, chinese, indians i.e., the three major races in this country.. We also have other minor races.. Our official language is Malay… Let’s say I’m teaching English in my classroom which consists of malays, chinese, indians and other races.. The teacher (me) an Indian… It’s ESL or EFL.. Please help me understand.. Thanking you in advance 🙂

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