EFL and ESL are NOT the Same
English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) are not the same. Many schools, teachers, authors and other professionals use these words interchangeably, which wouldn’t be such a problem if it were merely a lexical error. The real problem stems from the fact that most teachers continue to adhere to ESL approaches within EFL environments. This is especially noticeable in Asia, where I feel the deployment of inappropriate ESL techniques play a key factor in the general lack of English acquisition, particularly amongst children. Despite the increasing use and popularity of the term EFL, and a heightened awareness amongst teachers of the way in which it differs from ESL, language lessons have not changed much to meet the needs of students who are learning English as a Foreign Language.
What are the differences between ESL and EFL?
English as a Second Language refers to those studying the language in an English speaking country. Anyone living in an English speaking environment will be immersed in English, regardless of whether or not they study in a formal classroom setting. Television, school, books, newspapers, movies, daily conversation, everything is in English. This is important for two reasons. First of all, they have the advantage of considerably greater exposure to English in their daily life, which can amount to 60 or more hours in an average week. This comes though natural interaction with friends, colleagues, teachers, service workers, casual conversations in social settings and, in the case of home-stay students, communicating with family members. Then there is the more indirect exposure acquired from television, radio, reading menus and timetables, or simply over-hearing the conversations of native speakers. Students are learning, using and reviewing huge amounts of English everyday, and doing so in way that is totally natural rather than being artificially created in the classroom.
This leads us to the second major advantage that ESL students have over their EFL counterparts. If they also study in an ESL classroom, they can use this time to “fine tune” their English skills. They can ask grammar or vocabulary questions about English they have picked up elsewhere. Students can get clarification on grammar, vocabulary or expressions they didn’t understand. They also benefit more from deeper examinations of grammar and language usage. This is basis for most English textbook series where language targets are taught on a one per lesson basis, in a linear fashion. This works very well in an ESL environment because students benefit from having real opportunities to review and implement the English they have learned, outside of the classroom.
The importance of students having a real need to communicate in their daily lives should not be underestimated. For ESL students, it is not simply some esoteric subject they have to read in a textbook. Living in a country where you don’t speak the local language is extremely difficult. Even simple interactions like taking public transportation and shopping can be very frustrating. ESL students are impelled to gain at least a cursory understanding of English, just to make their lives bearable. Motivated students always learn much more.
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