Alphabet Soup: ESL, EFL, EAL?

If you are considering learning English for school, you have probably encountered the confusing acronyms that are used to describe English education programs around the world. To make matters worse, the differences between EFL, ESL, and EAL, ESOL can have a profound impact on language instruction. To help settle the confusion, here is an overview of the three main English education acronyms currently used around the world.

  • EFL, also known as English as a Foreign Language, is a generic term used to describe the use of English in a non-English-speaking region. For example, English language classes taught in Seoul (the Korean-speaking capital of South Korea) are considered EFL. Because EFL students study in countries that do not use English as a primary language, language immersion possibilities are limited.
  • ESL, or English as a Second Language, is by contrast used to describe English instruction that takes place in a primarily English-speaking country. This includes the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as in countries where English is spoken widely. Students who travel to the United States for a language immersion program are taking place in an ESL program. Because the country of study actively employs the target language these programs allows students ample opportunities to improve their language skills outside the classroom
  • However, because ESL implies English is a student’s second language – which is not always the case and can have important ramifications on language acquisition – the terms ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) and EAL (English as an Additional Language) have spread as a response to the term ESL. For example, a student from Eastern Europe may speak several languages fluently before beginning their English education. Because both are more widely – and accurately – applicable to students of all backgrounds, the use of these terms is expected to grow.