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EFL Vs. ESL - How Do They Differ?

Akshay Chavan Feb 28, 2019
The main difference between an EFL and ESL program is in the native language of the students, and that of the country the program is held in. Take a look at the interesting comparison of EFL vs. ESL programs, their aims, teaching strategies, and other facts.

Did You Know?

10% of all US public-school students take ESL classes to improve their proficiency in English.
In the current day and age, English has become one of the most common mediums of communication around the world. In fact, it is the third-most popular language after Mandarin and Spanish.
Thus, it has truly achieved the status of a global language. No matter which country one lives in, a basic level of proficiency in English is a must if one has to climb the professional ladder. Such skills are even more important for emigration purposes.
This has resulted in a spurt in programs designed to teach the nuances of this language. Two of the most popular programs are EFL and ESL, which are often confused for each other. The comparison of EFL vs. ESL in the upcoming sections will sort that out.

Basic Difference

EFL is an acronym for 'English as a Foreign Language'. In this program, English is taught in a country where it is not a primary language, but a 'foreign' one.
ESL is an acronym for 'English as a Second Language'. In such programs, English is taught in a country where it is the primary medium of communication to non-speakers, i.e., for whom it is a 'second' language, apart from their native tongue.

Type of Students

An EFL classroom contains a majority of students who speak the same native language, since it is held in these students' own country.
Since an ESL program is held in a country with English as its primary language, most of the students are immigrants from a variety of nationalities, and have different native tongues.


An English-learning program held in Japan for students of a local school is an example of an EFL program.

When a group of Japanese citizens emigrate to the United States, and take classes in English language, this qualifies as an ESL program.


Students attending an EFL class do not depend on English for survival, since people in such countries communicate in their native language for all purposes. Their purpose for learning English is mostly to complete a compulsory course in school so as to get admission to more prestigious schools or universities, or to pass an exam.
Students attending an ESL program need to learn English to survive in a foreign country, where it is the only medium of communication to perform all tasks, right from buying supplies at the grocery store to writing academic papers in a university. The stakes are high, as they may even have to compete for education or jobs with native speakers of English.

Frequency and Class Strength

EFL classes are usually held about once a week for 60 - 90 minutes, in a class comprising anywhere from 30 to 60 students.

ESL classes last longer, from 8 - 25 hours per week, with a lesser number of students, between 10 - 15, and not more than 25.

Progress Achieved

Students in an EFL class are likely to gain more reading and writing skills than improving their verbal communication in English. Probably, the only time they encounter the language is once in a week, with their teacher being their only source who is probably a local citizen himself/herself, having taken basic training in English.
Moreover, EFL programs usually involve economical books from a local source, apart from outdated teaching methods. For these reasons, apart from the lack of a pressing need to learn a foreign language, EFL students may show a slower rate of progress.
Students typically learn less in an ESL class than they do outside it where they come into contact with the local population. This contact gives them a good exposure to verbal communication in English, improving these skills, rather than those involving writing or reading.
With an access to a teacher who is a probably a native speaker in English, apart from high-quality reading material, ESL students show a higher rate of progress.

Teaching Strategy

An EFL teacher should make the subject appealing by combining his training with activities that students find interesting. Tests are a good source of external inspiration, since students tend to communicate more in English if they feel they are being judged. EFL students generally lack the motivation or the necessity to speak in a foreign language.
Since ESL students come from a variety of backgrounds, they may have different needs for learning the language, like integrating in an English-speaking society, getting a promotion at work, or simply communicating with their children. So, ESL teachers should focus more on the individual needs of their students.
While the use of the term 'EFL' is widespread, the same cannot be said of ESL. This is because the term 'second language' is controversial, since for some learners, English may be their 3rd, 4th, or even their 5th language.
For this reason, countries like the UK, New Zealand, and Ireland have started using the terms 'English for Speakers of Other Languages' (ESOL) and 'English as an Additional Language' (EAL), while USA, Canada, and Australia continue to use ESL.