If you work in China, you are not an ESL teacher.

ESL is the most commonly used word to describe the English-teaching industry in China. We’re teaching these students English as a second language to their first.


Very little of the Chinese population speaks English, nor is it used in everyday life. It’s a foreign language—not a second language, and the proper term is actually EFL: English as a Foreign Language. While this is spitting hairs, we are, after all, language teachers, and there are few things we do as well as we split hairs over minor wording corrections and grammar points.

The geographic location of these chairs determines whether it’s an EFL Or ESL classroom.

What’s ESL?

Even the dictionary(.com) defines ESL as, “the study of English by nonnative speakers in an English-speaking environment.” That environment isn’t the one created in a classroom, but rather the environment the student lives in. It’s meant to apply to immigrants to English speaking countries or citizens who speak a different language at home. ESL teachers teach in America and the UK, not in China and Japan.

What’s EFL?

EFL is the proper term for students learning English in a country where it’s not a language they will encounter on a daily basis. Students may be learning English to travel, further their careers or even simply for enjoyment. Outside of class, and related activities, they may not use the language at all.

Can I teach both ESL and EFL?

Students are likely change from being an EFL student to an ESL student, at points in their lives. Teachers are less flexible, and more often will be one or the other, based on where they’re located. Of course, technology could impact that. If, for example, you teach a student in person, but then arrange to teach them online while they attend an American University, they go from being an EFL student to an ESL student, and your classes “change” too.

But how different are they, really?

Part of the reason for the conflation and misapplication of the terms is that they overlap a lot. Curriculum may vary, but it varies within each already based on the students’ needs. A business-focused EFL class may have more in common with a business-focused ESL class than a travel-focused EFL class.

You can assemble EFL lessons from ESL materials, but be sure to create a sturdy foundation.

What to look out for?

When using materials created for ESL, be sure to review the level and make sure it’s appropriate for YOUR students, regardless of suggested age, grades, or years studied. ESL can move a lot faster and uses the fact that students are hearing, seeing, and reading English heavily outside of class. Homework provides an opportunity to practice things for class, but in EFL the students may not have other opportunities to do so.

Consider the cultural knowledge of the lesson as well. ESL students will have more exposure to English pop culture than EFL students. While EFL teachers also try to teach about English pop culture (and otherwise), never assume that using, say, Star Wars characters in the reading will make it more enjoyable.

Ask yourself:

Are the students familiar with ALL the words and grammar points being used? How can you overcome difficulties? Is this material useful to my students? Will they find it engaging? Are they familiar with texts of a similar length or will they find it intimidating?

Which word should I use?

Assuming you’re a teacher in China, like the majority of our audience, you should use EFL, but most likely everyone else will be using ESL still. To prevent confusion on their part, and to save yourself some time, feel free to use ESL. In your heart, you know the truth.

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