ESL? EFL? what’s the difference? A walk in the words helpfully summarizes this commonly-made distinction: ESL, or English as a Second Language is commonly taught in an English-speaking country; EFL, or English as a Foreign Language is taught in a non-English speaking country. At least, that’s the commonly understood distinction. The actuality, however, is more complicated.
The first, and most obvious objection is that many students don’t speak only two languages (English as a third or fourth language?). My own students, particularly those from multilingual countries, often make exactly this sort of objection. Proponents of the term ESL argue that it stands for English as a Second Language not the Second Language (though this idea brings with it the idea that there is a fundamental difference between First and Second language learners, which is somewhat problematic too).
Another, perhaps more important issue is that English is less and less “foreign” world-wide. There are English speaking communities in more countries than you might expect. And it’s entirely possible to get by in the US without speaking English (much as many Americans studying in Spain never get around to speaking any Spanish). So the concept of a language belonging to one country and being foreign to another is somewhat less relevant.
UK schools often use “English as an Additional Language” which I often find myself using when I need a term. In most American DOE schools, the terms Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and English Language Learners (ELL) are the most common terms, but these also have their own baggage. LEP defines students by their lack of English, and thus is part of a deficiency model of language teaching. For this reason it is generally avoided (and in truth, it rarely describes the kind of English teaching I do). The term English Language Learners seems less problematic, but like many of these concepts gets fuzzy at the end–who are English Language Learners? Aren’t all schoolchildren learning English? When does one stop being an English Learner?
What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet…
In my own classrooms, I find myself struggling to describe my students and what it is exactly, I do. While teaching First-Year Composition in the English Language Institute I usually used the phrase “multilingual students” to describe my students–which my students generally appreciated. Many of them had been using English for years (if not decades) and were very competent writers–though they were just different from monolingual writers. And yet, when talking about the course to others, I could tell that I was constrained by the realities of who was in my class (and who was not): I asked English TAs “do you have any multilingual students in your class?” and they responded “oh sure, lots of them speak other languages–almost everyone takes a language class in High School.”
And then, of course, we have English as a Global Language (EGL), English as an International Language (EIL), or English as a Lingua Franca (ELF or LFE). More on these, later.