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

by | Oct 20, 2015

Even those of us within the teaching profession may not be clear on the different acronyms that have surfaced to describe our jobs. When I first heard about the career of teaching English to speakers of other languages, I heard it referred to as “ESL.” Since that time (about 13 years ago), other acronyms (e.g., EFL, ESOL, and ELL) have come to my consciousness that essentially get at the same thing. Still, they are used to provide 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 the official language. For example, students from non-native English-speaking countries who come to the U.S. and Canada for an extended time learn English as a Second Language. They acquire English 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 country’s official language. But if those same students were in the U.S. learning English, they would be regarded as 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. This term was created 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 be a student’s third or even fourth language. Then, English as a Second Language is limiting and not fully comprehensive in its description.

ELL meaning: English Language Learners is commonly used in K-12 environments. However, it has been brought to my attention 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 learning English in the context of a particular field, profession, or topic. For example, when I was teaching legal English in China, I was teaching English in the law context. These students were learning English to study law through an American university where the professors were all native English speakers.

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


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