teaching Sep 16, 2017
esl efl elt esol tesl tefl tesol celta tkt


In this blog post I will give you an overview of the most popular abbreviations in the English as a foreign language industry. After reading it, you will be able to understand which certificate you need to get to teach English, if any, or what type of classes to look for if you are learning English. Let’s get started!

I have been a certified teacher of English as a foreign language since 2009. But I remember how confusing all of these abbreviations and terms were. If you don’t know what they mean, then you might think they are all the same. I have been a teacher trainer and teacher recruiter for years now and still to this very day, this is one of the most common questions people have.

English is the most widely-spoken language in the world right now - something we call a lingua franca or a global language. It’s the language that’s used most often in business too. And that’s probably why a lot of people get confused about the different abbreviations and designations that are attributed to different professionals in this sphere.

What is the difference between ESL - EFL - ELT - ESOL?

You might have heard terms like TEFL, TESL, AND TESOL. And I understand how somebody who is just getting into this industry might be a little confused with all of these different terms.

A lot of people stress the differences between ESL - EFL - ELT - ESOL and other abbreviations, and, sure, it is important to know the differences, but let’s start with the main ones. 

ESL stands for English as a Second Language. Whereas EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. And ESOL stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages. So just by definition you can see where the difference is. For example, maybe a person already knows a second or a third language, then by definition, it’s not correct for us to say that this is English as a second language, right? Probably this is English as a Foreign Language. But you would be surprised because in the industry, in the language teaching business market, people tend to use specific terms depending on where they are located and depending on their experience with other professionals. So, for example, if you are from the United States and you’ve gone through a college or university program to teach English as a foreign language, then they probably called it ESOL and they probably they stressed that this is much different from ESL or EFL. However when you travel to other non-English-speaking countries or work with people who are not based in the United States and do not work in this educational system or construct, people tend to refer to this sphere and this industry as ESL.

Which one to use?

 ESL is probably the most important of these 3 terms - not because of what it means. If we compare ESOL and EFL and ESL, then ESL is the smallest category, just using the words in this abbreviation. ESOL - English to speakers of other languages is very big and broad, or as English as a Foreign Language and English as a Second Language is a little smaller of a category.

 But do these things really matter in real life when professionals are speaking to each other? And the answer is - they do a little, but probably they should not. Let me tell you why. 

Nobody cares if you’re teaching ESOL or EFL or ESL as long as you get results. And in most cases students want to learn how to speak or how to use the language. In some cases they just want to pass an exam. Regardless, there is a set of skills that English language professionals need to have in order to get results for their clients or their students. And whether you call that ESOL or EFL or ESL it doesn’t really matter because we are all working towards the same goal.  

Some people might also refer to something called ELT or English Language Teaching. Again, this is another abbreviation for the same thing. Yes, you will find professionals out there and you will find books that have been published stating the differences between these different categories, between these different terms, and what it really means in practice. So, if you are interested in that and if you think it’s worthwhile, go ahead and read about those differences to find out more.  

But in my experience as a teacher and as a teacher trainer, and as a language teaching business owner, I can tell you that this difference is very very minuscule. And not very important in getting the job done.  

So my answer for you is: you need to know ESL as the global name that is used in most places and most frequently to describe teaching English to someone who does not speak this language as a native language or as their first language. This sphere or industry is called ESL. And yes, it is good to be aware of the other terms, too. 

Also note that some people refer to EFL as English that is learnt in a non-English-speaking country by non-native speakers of English and refer to ESL as English that is learnt in an English-speaking country by non-native speakers of English. Again, the terminology here is confusing and unimportant. While it is true that teaching English in an English-speaking country and teaching English in a non-English-speaking country is very different and that these two groups of learners have substantially different goals, the general principles that apply to being a successful teacher or running a successful language teaching business in these two different spheres overlap. 

Which certificate to pick?

Now when we talk specifically about teachers and about teaching then we usually use the term TEFL or Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. So someone might say that they are an ESL teacher or might say that they are TEFL teacher. And this could be pretty confusing too, because TEFL is not just about teaching English. It’s actually a certification. And there are several different certifications that one might get in order to become a certified teacher of English as a foreign language.

Now, those of you who are not teachers already and haven’t gone through this process yet, are probably asking yourself: why do I need to be certified? I speak English - that means I can teach it, right? Let me tell you, there is a BIG difference between knowing the language and teaching the language. And there is also a BIG difference between teaching a language to native speakers of that language and teaching a language to non-native speakers of that language. That’s where we come in.  

Two of the other qualifications that someone might get are CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) and TKT ((Teaching Knowledge Test). Generally speaking, the TKT is for non-native speakers of English who want to become English teachers and native speaking teachers usually get different certifications, either TEFL (Teacher of English as a Foreign Language) or CELTA. And TEFL certifications can be very very different.  

You can find a lot of TEFL certifications online and they tend to be cheaper, whereas a CELTA certification usually requires you to do a lot more and it also costs more.  

But don’t let all the different terms and abbreviations and acronyms out there confuse you. Yes, there are a ton of them and to be a professional in the sphere you need to know all of them. BUT to get results and to get started you really only need to know two: ESL, which describes the sphere of English for non-native speakers and TEFL, which describes the sphere of teaching English to non-native speakers.

I hope this gives you a little more insight into the ESL and TEFL industries.

Find useful videos about topics like this one on my YouTube channel!