Have you ever wondered what the meaning of ESL is? Even if you’re working in the English teaching profession it might still be a mystery! That’s without even considering the meaning of EFL, ESOL and ESP…
There are so many different acronyms for both learning English and teaching English to non-native speakers. ESL, EFL, ESOL and ESP all essentially cover forms of English language learning and they distinguish between different English learning environments and circumstances. So, what are these different learning environments and what do ESL, EFL, ESOL and ESP all mean?
ESL stands for English as a Second Language. In the context of learning English, this refers to learning English in a country where English is either the official language or the dominant language spoken there. An example of an ESL student would be a Spanish speaking person from Mexico who comes to the U.S. for an extended period of time and subsequently learns English there.
An ESL teacher is therefore someone who teaches English as a second language in an English speaking country. For example, a teacher from the U.S. teaching English in the U.S. to students from Mexico.
EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. In the context of learning English, it refers to learning English in a non-English speaking country. For example, English students in Mexico would be referred to as EFL students.
ESOL stands for English Speakers of Other Languages. This can cover both ESL and EFL students because they are both speakers of other languages. However, one of it’s predominant uses was derived from ESL because some students may already know more than two languages. Therefore, in such cases, English Speakers of Other Languages is more applicable than English as a Second Language.
ESP stands for English for Specific Purposes. This applies to students who are learning English for a specific profession or subject. An example of this would be a student learning legal English to help their legal studies or career as a lawyer.
Wait, there’s more…
EAP stands for English for Academic Purposes. This applies to students who are learning English in a higher education setting in order to use language appropriate for their studies. In fact, English for Academic Purposes is arguably the most common branch of English for Specific Purposes.
ELL stands for English Language Learners. ELLs are students who aren’t proficient English speakers and are not yet able to communicate fluently and effectively in English. They usually come from non-English speaking homes and could also fall under any of the above definitions depending upon their circumstances.
The differences between ESL, EFL, ESOL and ESP
As you can see, whilst these acronyms all refer to students learning English, the learning is done in different circumstances and for different reasons. It is these different circumstances and learning environments that form the main differences between ESL, EFL, ESOL and ESP.
Firstly, ESL stands for English as a Second Language, while EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. This difference is important because it changes who the audience is for each type of class.
ESL classes are typically found in countries where English is the primary language spoken, while EFL classes can be found anywhere in the world. Additionally, ESL classes can have more of a focus on helping students to communicate effectively in English, while EFL classes often focus on teaching grammar and vocabulary. However, this difference is usually small as both forms of teaching share the same learning objectives.
Another point of note is that whilst English as a second language is clearly very different to English as a foreign language in terms of learning environment, ESL teachers and EFL teachers will often have taken the same qualifications. This is because there is a lot of overlap between being an ESL teacher and being an EFL teacher. Much of the English language material being taught across both will actually be the same.
I hope that cleared up the meaning of ESL for you. There are a lot of acronyms for teaching English in different settings, so it is easy to get confused!
Speaking of which, we didn’t even cover all of the abbreviations and acronyms in English teaching here. You can check out this link for a full list of TEFL acronyms and terms.