What is the difference among ESL, EFL, EAL, ESP, EAP, and ESOL?

Have you ever thought: What is ESL? What is EFL? Are they different? Am I an EAL teacher? Or am I an ESP teacher??

If you’re new to the English teaching game, or even if you aren’t, these terms can get confusing. The one thing they all have in common is that English teaching is involved, but they all represent different types of learners in different contexts. Let’s take a look:

  • ESL

I’m guessing that most people who teach English are familiar with the term ESL. This one stands for “English as a Second Language.” This term is usually used when English learners are learning English in an English speaking country (how many times can I use English in one sentence?). For example, if you teach English to newcomers in Canada, it can be called ESL. These learners generally want to learn how to communicate in a community setting (i.e. how to set up an apartment viewing). The term is a bit problematic though, because ESL students may speak multiple languages, meaning that English could be their third, fourth, fifth (etc!) language. Despite this, it is one of the more well known terms, and I do use it myself as someone who currently teaches English in an English speaking country.

  • EFL

The term EFL is similar to ESL, with the exception that the context is different. EFL stands for “English as a Foreign Language.” This term is usually used when an English learner is learning English in a non-English speaking country. If you teach English in China, you might be called an EFL teacher. If I learn Japanese in Canada, I could be called an EFL learner. Often, learners want to know English to use while traveling to English speaking countries. Topics such as how to ask for train itineraries may be useful with this type of learner.

  • EAL

EAL encompasses both ESL and EFL together. This acronym stands for “English as an Additional Language.” This term includes learners in both English AND non-English speaking countries. It also eliminates the problematic assumption that the term ESL makes of English being only a second language. An English learner could speak 25 languages, and the term EAL would still be an accurate description. This type of learner may want to know how to communicate in an English community AND learn about English for travel.

  • ESP

My first thought when I first encountered this word was mind reading and the like. Unfortunately, there is no mind reading involved. ESP stands for “English for a Specific Purpose,” so in theory, I guess if the purpose was mind reading, it could still apply! In all seriousness, this is a very common descriptor for some English learners. For example, some learners want to use English in a business context only, so their language learning needs would be quite a bit different from a learner who has just moved to an English speaking country. There are also other specific purposes, such as our next acronym: EAP.

  • EAP

EAP is a subcategory of ESP. EAP stands for “English for Academic Purposes (or Preparation),” and as such, is very popular for high school and university aged learners. EAP prepares learners to be able to succeed in an English speaking university. There is a bigger emphasis on grammar, sentence structure, essay writing, and high level vocabulary than you might see in an ESL/EFL/EAL classroom.

  • ESOL

The final contributor to this list is ESOL, which stands for “English for Speakers of Other Languages.” This is a broad term that can envelop all the ones above. For this to represent a learner, they simply need to be a native speaker of a language other than English.  I like to call myself an ESOL teacher, because I have taught ESL, EFL, EAP, and ESP, all at different times. While ESOL does contain all the other terms, it is still useful to have the more specific terms to help better describe your learners’ particular situations.

I hope this cleared up some confusion!

What kind of English teacher (or learner) are you?

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