October 20, 2015

What's the Difference Between ESL, EFL, ESOL, ELL, and ESP?

***This content is based on a blog post from esltrail.com by Reading Horizons Curriculum Director Heidi Hyte. ***

Even those of us who are within the teaching profession may not be clear on the difference between the acronyms that have surfaced to describe our jobs. When I first heard about the profession of teaching English to speakers of other languages, I heard it referred to as “ESL.” Since that time (which was about 13 years ago), other acronyms have been brought to my consciousness (e.g., EFL, ESOL, and ELL) that are essentially getting at the same thing, but they’re used with the intention of providing more distinction between the different learning environments.

To hear Heidi explain the difference between those acronyms, watch the following video:

ESL meaning: English as a Second Language is learning English in a country where English is dominantly spoken or where English is the official language. For example, students from non-native English-speaking countries who come to the U.S. and Canada for an extended period of time learn English as a Second Language. They acquire English as a means to communicate in the dominant language spoken in the community where they reside.

EFL meaning: English as a Foreign Language is learning English in a non-English-speaking country. For example, students in China who are learning English are considered EFL students because English is not the official language of the country. But if those same students were in the U.S. learning English, they would be considered ESL students.

ESOL meaning: What is ESOL? The meaning of the initialism ESOL is English to Speakers of Other Languages. It applies to both ESL and EFL contexts. One reason why this term was created is because some individuals argue that when students are learning English in a native English-speaking country (ESL), these students are not necessarily learning a second language. It could, in fact, be a student’s third or even fourth language. English as a Second Language, then, is limiting and not fully comprehensive in its description.

ELL meaning: The term English Language Learners is commonly used in K-12 environments. It has been brought to my attention, however, that some school districts prefer to use the term ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) to describe their student population. This could simply be a preference issue.

ESP meaning: English for Special Purposes includes students who are learning English in context of a certain field, profession, or topic. For example, when I was teaching legal English in China, I was teaching English in context of law. These students were learning English in preparation for studying law through an American university where the professors were all native English speakers.


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Ruwan Weerakkody said

Hi, I am very confused now. I am reading the Hutchinson and Waters book of ESP, and on page 17 it shows a tree diagram of ELT, showing ESP as a branch of ESL and EFL. But in my thinking, its like ESL/EFL is a branch of ESP because ESL/EFL deals with the specific task of teaching a language to a student. Am I correct? And does ESP rest on the idea that students already can speak english? Or is it that one teaches ESP to students who dont know english at all , in the students' own context (and need)?

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Gordon said

In fact, I have benefited from the teaching.It has made me understand those who use English language as EFL and as ESOL

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Heidi said

Gordon, thanks for your comment. And Ruwan, you posed some interesting questions. I can see ESL/EFL being a branch of ESP as you suggested if the program is a training program where the language of the trade or vocation is being taught as the main purpose of the program. I once taught legal English in a foreign country where I was tasked to prepare law degree-seeking EFL students for law school classes that were going to be conducted in English. In that context, legal English (ESP) was the main purpose of the class, yet the students were learning English, as well. As far as your second question, I think ESP is specific for English language learners, although there is a wide variance of levels within an ESP context. These are good things to consider...

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Shekar said

These acronyms make lot more sense after watching your video. However, I request you to clarify my doubt in using above mentioned acronyms in a multilingual country like India where children learn English right from primary school. In Indian scenario where children who are exposed to more than two to three languages, where one being native language (Kannada) and others being regional languages (Konkani & Tulu). These regional languages are exposed outside home. The main query is, if these children start their formal education in a English medium school, where all the areas of curriculum taught using English as a medium or means to teach. Additionally, they also learn English as a subject along with two other language subjects (e.g., Hindi and Kannada). So would you please suggest the terminology that would be suitable for these English learners?

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Karen said

Add ENL - English as a New Language - to the mix - certification in NY State

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Laura said

I'd recommend adding EAP as well (English for Academic Purposes).

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