difference between esl and efl

ESL and EFL: What is the difference?

English language teaching is a wow for me! I had worked in the financial and technical industry for years. I volunteered in my children’s schools celebrating reading and helping them establish journalism groups, and I even taught English as a volunteer to migrant workers while living in Oregon in the States. But a career in teaching English, and living and working in different countries, well WOW, I really never dreamed of it.

I made a comment about teaching ESL on a networking platform and another commenter corrected me telling what I was actually teaching was EFL. So, what the heck is the difference?

ESL or English as a Second Language and how it compares to EFL or English as a Foreign Language really simply depends on where you are teaching or learning English. What that means is this: if you are teaching English in a country where the native language is English and your students are learning to speak and write and read English it is then a ‘second’ language so it would be referred to as ESL. If you’re teaching English in a country where the native language is not English, and your students are learning to speak and write and read English it is then a ‘foreign’ language so it would be referred to as EFL.

You might then be wondering, then what is the meat and bones difference about the two? Well, it could boil down to the strategies and tools used for teaching your students. Perhaps when you are teaching ESL your approach will be functional language use so that your students can more easily move within their new country using the local English language. For example, how to navigate the local transit system, or shop in the local market, do banking, etc. And of course, the relatable uses may vary by age, industry, etc.

Since EFL is taught in a country of a different language, the use of English will likely not be an everyday occurrence, so the student will have to seek out opportunities to use English in their communities. Here in China, there is a strong focus on English in the public schools where writing and reading skills are honed learning English language grammar rules and reaching goals of knowing the most Englishing language words is a common strategy. EF takes a different approach to teaching and that is breaking barriers with a common language – English. Because English is the most common language spoken by people who speak different native languages (often referred to as the Lingua Franca) our curriculum embraces a wholistic approach that focuses on ease and practicality of speaking English. We teach useable practical English language speech that will make it easy to speak to another person anywhere in the world, who could be from any country, and you both are understood and can have a conversation! Powerful, wonderful, and so cool!

The line from the old Gershwin tune, “You say tomato, I say tomahto”, is similar to the two ESL or EFL, as they are more similar than they are different. The world is becoming smaller every day in every way from our classrooms to business. Knowing English and being able to communicate effectively with someone is invaluable! I’m enjoying being an English language teacher and have found a new career in the middle of my life here at EF! #LivingaDreaminChina



Teach English, travel and work abroad with EF English First


Susan is an American woman living a dream — a dream to live and work in community in different countries! Several years in to her journey, she has found her home-away-from-home, while learning more about herself, more about the world, and building bridges through common language as an ESL teacher with EF Kids and Teens in Taizhou, Zheijiang, China. #Livin’aDreamInChina!

Click here to learn more about Susan