English Language Learning

There are many acronyms that refer to English language learning and English language learners. The acronyms differ based on the setting in which English is learned and the background of the learners. ESL (English as a second language) and EFL (English as a foreign language) are two of the most common ways to refer to the subject of English language learning. Here is a list of these and others that are commonly used:

  • EFL: English as a Foreign Language (learning English in a country where English is *not* an official language)
  • ESL: English as a Second Language (learning English in a country where English is an official language)
  • ESOL: English for Speakers of Other Languages (learning English in a country where English is an official language; used interchangeably with ESL)
  • TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language (teaching ESL)
  • TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (teaching ESOL)
  • EL: English learner (a person learning English in any setting; pronounced like the letter “L”)
  • ELL: English language learner (a person learning English in any setting; pronounced like the letter “L”)
  • ELT: English language teaching (teaching English language in any setting)
  • Sheltered English: generally refers to English classes for non-native speakers

Why are these distinctions important? Why do people get so picky about silly details like the setting? Actually, these distinctions are not at all picky; they are critical to finding the right classes, jobs, and course materials for learners and teachers of English.

English versus ESL/ESOL/EFL

One reason that so many acronyms related to English learning developed is the necessity to distinguish English language learning for native speakers from English for non-native speakers. Take English classes in the USA, for example. In most US public high schools, there are four English classes required for native speaking students: English 9 (for freshman), English 10 (for sophomores), English 11 (for juniors), and English 12 (for seniors). In these classes, clearly, students are not studying how to speak English; they are studying English language literature, grammar, and essay writing. Students and teachers refer to each of these classes as “English class.” Now, the same public high schools, there are also classes for non-native speakers who have immigrated to the USA. In these classes, students study about English language specifically–how to speak, read, and write the language to develop social and academic reading, writing, listening, and speaking fluency. These classes are generally called ESOL or ESL classes.

There is some overlap even in this situation. (The following still refers to US schools, as all English-speaking countries handle the division of native and non-native English learners a little differently.) For example, in US public schools, the term “sheltered” is often used for content courses taught for non-native speakers, including English 9, English 10, English 11, and English 12, as well as other classes like US or World History, Biology I, and several math classes. So, “sheltered English 9” is a freshman English 9 class in literature, grammar, and essay writing that has *only* non-native English speakers in it, versus “English 9” (or non-sheltered English 9) that only has native speakers in it. The term “sheltered English” in general would mean English 9, 10, 11, or 12 taught for non-native speakers, or it could also mean English literature or English language arts in lower grades taught for non-native speakers; in all cases, the focus of sheltered English classes is reading, writing, and speaking academic material versus learning conversational language. The content objectives would be the same, but the language complexity is reduced in the sheltered class.