TEFL TESOL What’s the difference?

4 Jan

So you’re probably familiar with the acronyms TEFL and TESOL from the title to this article – Teaching English as a Foreign Language and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.  But do you know which you teach?  Are you sure you don’t teach something else entirely?  (Obviously, teachers of languages other than English who may have their hands in the air at this point – feel free to substitute your target language for the word “English” throughout this post!)

TEFL and TESOL aren’t the only acronyms out there though – here are all those that I’m aware of:

  • TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language
  • TESL – Teaching English as a Second Language
  • TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • TELF – Teaching English as a Lingua Franca
  • TEAL – Teaching English as an Additional Language
  • TEIL – Teaching English as an International Language
  • TESP – Teaching English for a Specific Purpose
There are probably more that I’m not aware of – I’d like to avoid discussing all of the different “purposes” that can be covered in TESP, as I fear we’d never stop….
So a quick question for you:

And are these useful distinctions to draw?

TEIL and TELF possibly are, as these speak to the nature of the language being taught.  Some years ago Alex Tilbury gave a seminar on this, my notes from which are sadly lost forever, but the point is made that more people speak English than there are native speakers of the language, and the distinction between English as a Lingua Franca and English as a Native Language is worth making for that reason if no other.  I don’t particularly want to get into the “whose language is it anyway?” debate – anyone who’d like to look into this in more detail should take a look at these two articles (pdfs open in new window):

But to differentiate between TESOL / TEFL / TESL / TEAL is surely just splitting hairs?  A historical quirk relating solely to the evolution of the profession?

I understand why these distinctions have been made as they all relate to the starting point of the learner as they come into the classroom (so to speak).  There is a difference in the learner who learns in their own country or in a native speaker country or in a third location (e.g. a French person learning English in Russia).  Equally there is a certain presumption in assuming your learners’ have no other languages other than their mother tongue – one student I taught was a Polish, French, German and Russian speaker before I met them.

My question is not whether the distinctions are valid – just whether they are useful.  I don’t honestly think they are.  It is important to understand where your learners have come from in their linguistic and life journeys – but finding out about your learners is part of good teaching.  Labelling your learners or being so prescriptive as to label what you do and doing nothing other than that – is not.  And ultimately, the third conditional is still the third conditional, no matter what label you give the teaching.

What do you think?


3 Responses to “TEFL TESOL What’s the difference?”

  1. Teal Thursday 13 June 2013 at 16:04 #

    Having taught both ESL/EAL in an English state school and EFL in Asia, I can assure you that ESL/EAL and EFL are very different. The make-up of the teaching groups, the background experience of the students, the students’ learning needs, the topics of interest, the approaches you use for teaching, the availability of teaching materials and the qualification requirements for teachers are just a few of the differences.


  1. What’s the difference between TEFL and TESOL? | efl-resource.com - Wednesday 4 January 2012

    […] January 2012What’s the difference between TEFL and TESOL?David Petrie discusses various names and abbreviations we give to what we teach – TEFL, TESOL, TELF, and so on – and argues against the tendency to identify ourselves […]

  2. POLL: Would you agree with changing spelling rules in English ? | A journée in language - Thursday 5 January 2012

    […] thrown my 2 cents in on that discussion.  Speaking of which, yesterday, I caught another great post from David Petrie’s on the confusion between TEFL, TESL, TESOL, TELF, TEAL, TEIL, TESP, […]

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