What is the difference between ESL and EFL

February 15, 2017

Many people choose to learn English as a second language. In fact, out of the 1,500 million people who speak English there are only 375 million native speakers. A massive 52.2% of the world’s webpages are written in English and it is known to be the “language of business”. This makes it a fantastic resource for understanding and connecting with the wider world.


What does EFL and ESL mean?

ESL and EFL are the two main types of learning the English language. We’ve included some simple definitions to help you understand the main differences between them:

English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is the practice of studying English in a country where it isn’t the dominant language.

English as a Second Language (ESL) is the practice of learning English in a country where it is widely spoken, such as the United Kingdom.


What are the main differences between ESL and EFL?

There are two main differences which separate ESL and EFL. Firstly, English as a Second Language is much more immersive than its counterpart, as you experience a greater level of exposure with more opportunities to communicate and apply what you have learned to a whole range of situations. This is much less limited than EFL, where the majority of learning will happen in a classroom.

The other main difference is the cultural aspect of their study. Whilst somebody learning English as a foreign language might be able to hold a conversation well, the intricacies of social situations and language uses will be hard to teach. People in an ESL environment are constantly immersed in the language and will get to apply what they have learned to real life situations, whereas someone learning English in their own country might not even get access to a native speaker. Teaching in classrooms doesn’t fully compensate for the real life experiences of someone learning English as a second language (Brown 1994).

Teaching strategies for ESL and EFL

When thinking about how you should cater for EFL and ESL students, it is important to consider their different needs and priorities. For example, a student who has just arrived in an English-speaking country will have much more urgent language needs than somebody who is learning it in their own country and is able to communicate fluently with people outside of the classroom.


English as a Second Language

Essentials: these students have a practical need to learn English and will experience a much higher level of exposure. Teaching simple things such as how to fill out forms and ask for directions are imperative and should be made a priority to help with the students’ welfare and independence. However, lessons on tenses, grammar etc. are still important and should still be implemented in lessons after students have mastered the basics.

Culture: teaching students about the culture of the people living in the country is essential to help with their integration and language development. Lessons on festivals, key historical events and the country’s etiquette are important to help the student understand the people they are living with and reach a greater level of fluency.


English as a Foreign Language

Motivation. For someone learning EFL, motivation can be a big factor to their success. Teaching strategies which help to keep students engaged and interested are a vital part of this kind of learning. Exposing them to music and facts about the language as well as providing them with opportunities to chat with native English speakers can help you to achieve this.

Exposure. Provide students with as many opportunities to speak and engage in conversations as possible. This is vital as it is something that they will not experience to the same degree as they would if they were an EFL student. Activities with native speakers, trips to English-speaking countries and pen pals etc. are all great ways of developing the student’s language skills.

Culture. This is important to both EFL and ESL and should be implemented into any teaching strategy. For students learning English as a foreign language, it is important that this is taught effectively as they will not be able to learn it naturally through exposure.


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