Confused about ESL ELT EFL TEFL TESL ESOL TESOL in Korea

Recently, when giving feedback on something written for English teachers in Korea I told the writer that it would probably be better to say “ELT” instead of “ESL” in a sentence that was originally something like “It is so nice to connect with other committed ESL teachers.”

A few days later I saw a blog post where a different author wrote something like, “If you want to improve your ESL lessons in Korea, you will need to get the right EFL books.”

Color me confused.

Ok maybe I wasn’t that confused.
(#ELTpics pic by @VictoriaB52)

Generally being a proponent of ELF (English as a lingua franca) and World Englishes I still had to wonder about the use of the acronym “ESL” for the Korean context. My understanding is and was that ESL (even if it is an outdated concept) still refers to countries in which English is the main language. Of course, determining such things can be messy and English is extremely important in Korea but I think people would be hard-pressed to call Korea an ESL situation.

The uses of “ESL” above got me thinking….

1)    Was I being pedantic? (This is a charge that I will willingly accept at times)

2)    Would readers judge the authors for using the term “ESL” in this way?

3)    What is the big deal anyway?

4)    Do these distinctions still matter?

I will leave the first 2 questions up the reader but I am not certain how much these distinctions matter much anymore. I am not saying that we would teach necessarily teach the same way or the same things in Seoul and New York City but I don’t know that making broad assumptions about students and “the way” to teach them based on this (false?) EFL/ESL dichotomy is the way to go.  Let’s consider some scenarios. Which of these sounds most “ESL-ish?”

Scenario A
The class is a conversational English class in a graduate school in Seoul and there are 10 students and 5 of them are Korean. The rest of the students are a mix of Chinese, French, Russian, and Swiss, One of the Korean students has never left Korea and another one went to high school and college in Canada. English is the main language of communication in the graduate school (meaning that all their classes are conducted in English).

Scenario B
30 Korean college students go to Boston for 2 intensive weeks in the summer. They mostly study TOEIC prep and vocabulary but also have some excursions around town. They speak Korean with each other for the majority of the time when they are not in class and don’t have much contact with the locals.

Scenario C
30 Korean college students go to an English camp in Korea where they study English all day every day for a month. The camp’s policy is “English Only” and students are given penalty points if they are caught speaking Korean. The main focus of the camp is “survival English” in order to live and survive in an English speaking country.

Scenario D
In Manila, 10 Korean students study in a class with 3 Japanese students, 3 Chinese students and 2 Vietnamese students. The class is mostly focused on conversation skills and vocabulary.

Are some of them more “ESL-like” than others? Is it just based on the location where the course is offered? Is there more to it?

Other questions include:

When would you use “ESL” and what would you mean by it?
When would you use “EFL” and what would you mean by it?
When would you use “TESOL” and what would you mean by it?
When would you use “ESOL” and what would you mean by it?
When would you use “ELT” and what would you mean by it?

(Please don’t send links about terms or inner-circle/outer-circle stuff…I am mostly concerned with how you would personally actually use the terms)


  1. Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

    I think that although it is not a cut and dry distinction it is still an important one. It would be impossible for us to have an acronym or title for every degree of ESL of EFL, as you rightly point out many are borderline cases, but usually it is possible to distinguish whether English is a foreign language or a second language for students.

    I really believe this distinction is important when a teacher is evaluating the most suitable pegagogy for their context, decisions regarding the extent to which a subject like pragmatics (just as one example) in terms of how, when and why it should be taught will be different, I think, depending on whether you have an ESL or an EFL class. Teachers need to have some way of researching pegagogy relating to the different contexts. As an example, if I was a teacher in London with a class of students, lets say just for example they had lived in the U.K for 2 years since arriving as immigrants, when they arrived they had little knowledge of English, and are looking to improve their English skills, I personally would look up relevant literature using the term \’ESL\’ and refine it from there. They are likely to hear English in their workplace, on the way to work, on packets, at the supermarket etc. etc. etc. Literature on EFL is less likely to be as useful as it is not based on students who are in this position, but students who are most likely see English only in their English class.

    This also works the other way round, now I\’m teaching high school students in Korea, it would be much more suitable for me to discuss and research suitable pedagogy under the term \’EFL\’. Of course some research, perhaps even a lot of research, over laps between the two, but, I think, it is important when discussing, writing and reading research and theory to distinguish between an EFL or an ESL context as they CAN be extremely different.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments, Mr. Walsh. Much appreciated. I have to say that I didn’t really think about research at all as I wrote the post! Good points, for sure. The interesting thing from my view is that your points seem to be continent upon people using the terms in the agreed upon way. So, when people use “ESL” when talking about the usual situations in Korea they are likely to miss out on websearches for “EFL” and so on.

      In a previous job, one of the courses I taught was called “Practical English.” I still haven’t exactly worked out what that means either. In any case we taught a lot of stuff about living/surviving in an English speaking country and I used a lot of materials that would (quite rightly I suppose) be labelled as ESL.

      I guess what I really wanted to say (and touched on in my next post) is just because we are physically located in one country doesn’t mean that we *should be locked into certain methods/approaches/whatevers.

      I really liked your point where you said, “I think, it is important when discussing, writing and reading research and theory to distinguish between an EFL or an ESL context as they CAN be extremely different.” Well said. I’d certainly agree that they can be different.

      Thanks again for the comments and insights!


  2. Ben Naismith

    I have to admit that I don’t find the distinctions as important as Alex does – in part this is because of the general confusion of the terms online and amongst teachers, and partly because it has never really affected me in any way.

    To make my life easier, I basically just use two terms – EFL for all foreign language learning (second, other, whatever) and ELT for all language teaching. I wouldn’t write ELT teachers as this seems redundant (unless you’re referring to teacher trainers), but EFL teachers. The only time I ever use ESOL is when referring to Cambridge ESOL.

    It might just be to my ears, but ESL has connotations of literacy and classes for immigrants. Plus, I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that US teachers use ESL more frequently than teachers in the rest of the world.

    Good times with acronyms…

    • mikecorea

      Good times with acronyms, indeed.
      I really appreciate you taking the time to share how you’d use these, Ben. Perhaps because we are both originally from North America it seems to me that we would use these terms in similar ways. ESOL is not really a term I’d use much at all.

      Interesting you’d use “EFL” as the general term as it seems that lots of people I hear/read seem to use ESL as the general term (I get the same connotations from ESL as you, though). Reading through the comments here helped me see that my sense of confusion was at least a bit warranted. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Rachael Roberts

    Interesting post (as ever). Personally, i would use ESOL for learners who are trying to settle in an English speaking (which is why Cambridge ESOL doesn’t make complete sense to me as most of what they do isn’t really aimed at ESOL teachers or students (though some is, like the Skills for Life exams). I believe that ESL is the American version of ESOL? EFL to me is more about learning English for some future non specific benefit. If it’s to study in English I’d call it EAP.
    I don’t tend to use EFL or TEFL much myself as it has a bit of a pejorative connotation I think- something not very serious that people do while they’re travelling for a year or two.
    So I’d usually refer to myself an an ELT teacher or trainer or writer (though Alex is right that the first is a bit redundant!). This could cover EFL and/or ESOL (and I do do both)
    But, if you’ll forgive me, I think the whole inner/outer/expanding circle thing is relevant because the situation has changed/is changing so much as English becomes a lingua franca in more contexts/countries and is increasingly used as a medium of instruction.

    • mikecorea


      Thanks so much for stopping by, as well as for the kind words and insights.

      In response to your thoughts.
      My sense is that when you used ESOL (and a quick google search) it was how we Americans would use ESL.
      I really like the sentence, “EFL to me is more about learning English for some future non specific benefit” and I think that is exactly what we see here in Korea. Often very non-specific.

      I am drawn to the “neutrality” and “professionalism” of ELT, so this is a term that I’d tend to use frequently. I suppose the titles of both our blogs were not accidental in this regard!

      It is interesting that you get negative connotations from “TEFL” because I do too. I’d also think of vague certificates as well when I hear TEFL.

      I completely forgive you for mentioning inner/outer circle stuff!
      (For some strange reason, I was worried people would send me links on the terms when I just wanted to know what they would actually say.) I fully agree with you that “the situation has changed/is changing so much as English becomes a lingua franca in more contexts/countries and is increasingly used as a medium of instruction ” and I think that as ELT professionals we need to be aware of this and thinking of what it means for instruction.

      Thanks again and talk to you soon!

  4. Ashley

    Interesting questions. Honestly, I find it to be a regional difference. In the States, I don’t meet too many people who use ELT. We use ESL as the general term. ELL is also common, though that obviously refers to the student and specifically to grade school students.

    I only ever come across ELT on Twitter, and most of the people I follow on Twitter are not from the States (a constant frustration of mine, but not related to your post). I feel like TESOL is more common over here for referring to the career.

    The distinction between ESL and EFL is important to me. I would certainly consider myself an ESL teacher. Teaching EFL is a completely different ball game, and I know I would find it very challenging. My students live in the US, interact regularly with Americans, and plan to study in an American university. Definitely a second language context.

    On a related note, I attended a conference recently where an educator suggested referring to our students as “emergent bilinguals,” instead of “ESL students.” In the States at least, ESL has certain negative associations with special ed and remedial classes. I like the idea of referring to students as bilinguals since it really places a positive emphasis on what a difficult and impressive thing it is to learn another language. I wonder if we’ll someday add EB to the ever-growing list of acronyms for this field.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Ashley!

      Thanks so much for the comments. All the responses have been very interesting! 🙂
      I suppose in the states it makes sense to use “ESL” as the general term because that is the common situation.
      It is also interesting to see that the ESL/EFL distinction is an important one for you as well.

      One thing that often troubles me about ESL/EFL is that there tends to be the thought of students as “failed native speakers” rather than something more positive than “emerging bilinguals.” I like the positive emphasis on this (and as you say, “it really places a positive emphasis on what a difficult and impressive thing it is to learn another language”) but I am not so sure how well it will stick. 🙂

      Thanks again for the comments!

      ps- As for the relative lack of American ESL/EFL professionals on twitter…very interesting situation for another day!

  5. pterolaur

    Personally I try to use ELT as far as possible. It seems to be the most neutral and professional term. ESOL to me is what I taught in London, to Ss who were settling immigrants (mainly refugees but also economic migrants); ESL is what I taught in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, where English was an established second language because of their colonial histories; and EFL is what I taught to European kids on summer schools. They\’re certainly not the definitions per se, but it\’s how I think about my own teaching. Having said that, and made it sound like I have clear compartments in my head for types of English teaching, the way I\’ve taught in those different contexts has largely been the same. *What* I\’ve taught has varied hugely, but the methods that work for you are the methods that work for you.

    If not ELT, I think I would be most inclined to adopt ESOL as the catch-all term for my career, since it just means \’English for Speakers of Other Languages\’. ESL and EFL as defined above would fit under ESOL as an umbrella term.

    Does this matter? I\’m not sure. It matters if you\’re a materials writer, I suppose – you need to know the context in which your books will be used. But as a teacher? – your instinct generally guides you. When you\’ve spent a bit of time with a class you get a feel for what they need and how to deliver it. Good teachers (or coursebooks) give students the language which will be the most useful for them, no matter what their course is called.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking blog post, as always

    • mikecorea

      Hey wait a minute…. I just wrote the term “ELT seems neutral and professional” when responding to another comment. I guess your thoughts really got into my brain.

      Thanks so much for the comments. You wrote, (as a teacher) “Your instinct generally guides you. When you’ve spent a bit of time with a class you get a feel for what they need and how to deliver it. Good teachers (or coursebooks) give students the language which will be the most useful for them, no matter what their course is called.” I think there are some really good points here. I am personally not sure how important the labels are but I think that anything that can help the teacher is good by me. I think instinct is another really interesting idea/concept as well.

      I really appreciate the examples of contexts that you gave! I presume the courses you were calling EFL (continental European kids on summer schools) occurred in England, which to many under the simple definition would then be ESL but my sense is that what you describe might be more EFL-like.

      Also, very interesting points about Sri Lanka and Malaysia…where we can see that the neat and clear distinctions can fade away quite easily.

      I am thrilled that you found the post thought-provoking…especially because I have been curious about it for a while. Still wondering if I was being pedantic. 🙂

      Thanks again for the comments!

  6. Sophia

    Hahaha this is such an annoying problem! I associate ESL with the migrant sector, and EFL with working holiday or student visa students, or courses for fun or study (without the pressing needs of new migrants or refugees) – although I can see how what Ashley describes is a bit of crossover area. EFL students are literate, used to typical coursebooks and tasks, know what is expected in classroom, and are at a more or less similar level in the 4 skills – these things can’t be taken for granted with ESL students. And of course what ESL students need English for is crucial way beyond the EFL student’s “Tell us about…” boardgame or song gapfill. Hmm.
    But in “ESL” now (in the UK anyway) some people seem to referring to ESOL now, so I have started using ESL and ESOL interchangeably, as Rachael notes…but maybe I am doing the wrong thing there, Laura has a point too in that it’s such a general acronym…And maybe I need to throw away my ESL/EFL distinction because internationally, a lot of people seem to use ESL as a blanket term, and TESOL as the field (I do prefer this to using EFL alone and TEFL as the field – reminds me backpacker teachers teaching very homogeneous class types in Europe somehow, maybe that’s just me!)
    SO – I prefer ELT simply because it avoids all this confusion. Now people are using EAL, English as an additional language, maybe that will replace EFL/ESL – it’s not common enough yet for me to go there, but maybe in the future that will help. Or maybe it will just be one more acronym to worry about…
    I do think all this is important in that it would help teachers to make connections, search online, and do research in the right areas for them – how annoying is it on Twitter to have to hashtag #EFL, #ESL, #TEFL and #TESOL? I tend to use just #ELT (general) and #ESOL (migrant sector). Also when you are looking at studies/research on “ESL students”, knowing whether you are looking at EFL or ESL students can make an important difference to the validity of what’s being presented – usually the writer makes this clear, but not always, and not all findings are equally applicable to both contexts…There are too many acronyms in this field that’s for sure. Annoying.

    • mikecorea

      Annoying is right. Hahah. It seems like such a basic thing, but obviously it is not so simple.

      I think I am going to mix it up in speaking and see what sorts of reactions I get. Probably nothing because most people probably don’t care all that much.

      I think you made some great points about the typical needs of ESL students as compared to EFL students. I also like how you weren’t tied into the actual physical location of the class…which I think can be too easy to do.

      EAL…hmmmm.. It sounds pretty neutral but I can imagine the need to explain it nearly every time I use it.

      Good points about the research aspect…something I hadn’t really thought about!

      Ohh don’t even get me started on the hashtags thing!

      Confused as ever but grateful for the thoughts and insights,

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    • mikecorea

      That’s a good one…interesting that it doesn’t get more use. Also, your definition, understanding, and usage doesn’t seem to match with Rachael’s. This is, to me at least, another example of how confusing these terms can be. Thanks for the input!

  8. Andrew Pollard

    I’m going to just comment on the scenarios… Time is is precious at the moment.

    Perhaps we can use a combination of the terms to differentiate between ‘situation’ and context’? With context largely referring to the outside world beyond the dynamics of the class

    For instance:
    – Scenario A is an ELF situation in an EFL context
    – Scenario B is a waste of money… otherwise, assuming their in the same class — EFL situation in an ESL context… I also like ‘educursion’ (educational excursion: my favourite imaginary word this week)
    – Scenario C, I’d like to just call this immersion
    – Scenario D would make a great research project. OK… it’s ESL in the classical sense, but more closely… If those 18 students associate outside of class and there’s a combination of nationalities with only the students involved, then it becomes an ELF situation. If we add a Filipino that is a proficient English speaker to the mix, then we’re in the territory of an ESL situation to many (I’m still in ELF land). If we the Filipino, however, isn’t a proficient English speaker – and much prefers the use of their L1 – then we’re shifting back to an ELF situation. If only one nationality of students hang out and insist on using English, perhaps this is an EFL situation, even though they’re still in the ESL context. If those students of the same nationality meet a Filipino proficient in English, it’s an ESL situation. If the Filipino isn’t proficient, it’s ELF.

    Imagine following Scenario D for a month and documenting all the interactions…

    • mikecorea

      Thanks so much for the comments Andee,
      (Especially as I know you are so busy)

      I think your distinctions are really helpful here. I was trying to suggest that simply looking at the map is not a good enough way to determine if a course is ESL/EFL (assuming these labels still have meaning and value) and I think that thinking in terms of context and situation could be quite helpful. I suppose my thought was that some courses are more ESL-ish than others and that the context is just one of the factors involved in determining just how ESlish or EFly a course is.

      Thanks again for the comments and enjoy the summer!


      ps-great point about the research, it would be super interesting.

  9. Leo

    I also don’t understand why we need so many terms and prefer to use ELT like Laura above. After all English is English is English so does it really matter whether students are learning it as a FL or SL? I suppose it matters in research when you want to emphasise that a study was conducted in an EFL context where students would not have as much exposure to English outside the class but as regards teaching I don’t know why so much fuss has to be made about the distinction. It’s like the difference between American and British English that textbooks like to dwell on with exercises matching pants and trousers and flats with apartments.
    A nice read, Michael!

  10. Leo

    Now going through other readers’ comments I see that Alex has already mentioned the importance of EFL/ESL distinction in research so I second that.

  11. Chris Ożóg

    Just saw this post and thought I’d share some really geeky trivia with you. The first 3 pages of A History of English Language Teaching ( are devoted to defining the acronyms to be used in the book, and I can tell you that ELT was first officially used in the autumn of 1946 when the British Council brought out a journal of that name. Right, I’m off back to my cave…

    • mikecorea

      This is excellent…I am very glad that you shared it. Perhaps you guessed that I might be interested in some geeky trivia. It is also interesting because it seems that ELT is a bit “newer” than some of the other terms. Take care and talk to you soon!

      • Chris Ożóg

        Yes, I thought you might like it… I’m going to share a quotation I just read too, which supports the EFL/ESL distinctions many have noted above.

        “Authenticity refers to whether a task needs to correspond to some real-world activity, i.e. achieve situational authenticity… The ‘survival’ tasks, for example, filling in various kinds of official forms, which are common in ‘second’ (as opposed to ‘foreign’) language classes, are further examples of real-world tasks” (Ellis, Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching, page 6)

        Ellis is making a clear distinction between EFL and ESL as I see it there, which seems to support your assessment that ESL “refers to countries in which English is the main language” where such skills such as form-filling would be actually useful.

      • mikecorea

        Thanks for sharing this. I think this is a clear example of the usual understanding. It reminds me of the time when my students here in Korea were practicing filling out official forms (as many of them had plans to live/study in N. America after the course). To my mind this was an ESL-ish task done in an EFL situation. Or something. I guess my thought is that the ESL/EFL distinctions are a bit too neat and don’t always match reality. As others have noted, there are some benefits of such distinctions though. Thanks again for sharing!

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  14. Tesal K. Sangma

    I may be wrong, but I think it depends on the function and status of the language in a particular region. For example, in India we would never say that English is a foreign language because it is a co-official language of the nation and many Indian states have English as their main or co-official language or one of the official languages. In fact, almost all the official and administrative works here are done in English. Besides, most schools and almost all universities in India use English as the medium of instruction. Also, there are numerous English newspapers in the country and many Indians write novels, poems and drama in English. We use English with shopkeepers and when we travel to other regions of the country; it is a common language that people use to communicate when the speakers concerned do not share the same 1st language. Even those who cannot speak the language come across it at least every once in a while in a single day, except those in the remote corners of the country. English-educated parents converse with their children in both their 1st language and English. As such, India would be an ESL situation, as people use the language alongside their mother tongue every day.

    I guess, EFL situation would be when people use it in selective situations such as interacting with foreigners and only on special occasions; when the language is learned as a subject in school but is not necessarily the medium of instruction; when the language is not an official language of the nation/states of the nation; etc.

    This is what I think. 🙂

    Good post!!

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks very much for the comment. I appreciate your perspective.
      Interestingly, I recently read someone explaining their view of ESL as only countries like India and the Philippines but not like countries like the US or Canada which seems to go against the usual understanding.

      What I wanted to suggest here is that the (old) labels might not always apply or be helpful.
      Thanks again for the comments!

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