ESL vs EFL
The world of teaching English is a world of acronyms. People often assume that EFL (English as a foreign language) students are basically the same as ESL (English as a second language) students. Here, I would like to point out one of the main differences and what this means to English teachers.
The EFL student learns English in the classroom, mentally puts it on a shelf, and brings it out to use as a tool, when necessary. The EFL student has less exposure to the language and may use ‘textbook’ or formulaic phrases in conversation. In many cases, even though the student has learned English at school for many years, this may not seem to be reflected in their ability.
The ESL student uses English as a second language. For example, in many families in the US, Spanish is spoken at home while English is spoken at work. It may be that the student has never formally studied English, but has picked it up from being ‘thrown in the deep end’, or forced to use it in the workplace. The ESL student has probably picked up slang and has been forced to speak English without paying attention to accuracy. They have great comprehension skills (listening, reading), but weaker production skills (speaking, writing) and much weaker core language skills (grammar) but excellent vocabulary in their field of work or study.
So which type of student should be easier to teach? For me, it’s the EFL student and I will explain why.
Have you ever heard this story about Zen Buddhism? A new student seeks to study under a great master and talks at great length to impress him with his knowledge of Zen. The master pours him a cup of tea, but continues to pour after the cup is full, spilling tea all over the table. The master explains, ‘You are like the cup. How can I fill you with knowledge when you are already full? Before you study with me, you must empty your cup.’
The EFL student is like an empty cup waiting to be filled. The ESL student, on the other hand, is like the cup that is already full. The ESL student may have ‘false friends’ that he uses to make himself understood. For example, some speakers of European languages like to say ‘no?’ – ‘It’s true, no?’ Because they are understood, they continue to use it and avoid using a more natural way of saying it – ‘It’s true, isn’t it?’ Simply teaching them what is correct and what isn’t is not enough. You are asking them to change the way that they have been speaking, maybe for years. What you are asking of them is behavioral change. And any training that involves behavioral change is a lot more challenging than training that simply involves knowledge transfer or gaining a new skill.
In summary then, one of the main differences between teaching ESL and EFL students is that, although ESL students often have better skills in many areas, to move forward, they need behavioral change.
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