What is TEFL? What is TESOL?

What is TEFL? What is TESOL?

When beginning to explore the world of teaching English you may be amazed at the amount of acronyms you encounter. Maybe they are due to English teachers’ propensity to be specific, maybe they are found to flaunt their facility and flair for the English language, whatever the reason this article is written to help you detangle the difference and expand the abbreviations.


Teaching the English language is categorised by who you teach and where it is that you teach. TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. English is considered a foreign language in countries where it is not usually spoken, so TEFL is the teaching of English to people who have another language as their first and who do not use English in their wider community. TEFL is what is taught when you teach English in Asian, some European, Middle Eastern and South American countries, countries where English is considered a foreign language.


TESOL stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. So this acronym is used whenever English is taught to anyone who has a Language Other than English (LOTE [told you didn’t I?]) as their first language and lives anywhere.

This covers then also the teaching of English in places where English is used in the wider community. It would be used with people who have migrated to an English-speaking country from a country where they did not use English, an example of this would be a Vietnamese-born boy who moved to England and learns English at school. It also includes people learning English where English is a foreign language (as mentioned above) so it covers for example, a female Portuguese-speaking scientist learning English in Brazil. It is further used to describe the process whereby Indigenous people learn English in their own countries where English is also used by the wider community. An example of this would be an Australian Aboriginal girl learning English after first learning to speak the Kaurna language.

TESOL is an umbrella term for the teaching of English to anyone who is learning English as another language after their first regardless of the context in which they live.

Is there any point for the distinction?

The distinction is made not simply for confusing the uninitiated, it highlights the context or learning environment in which the student is studying the language. Learning English as a foreign language means that the time spent in the classroom speaking and using English may be the only time the student uses English during the day. Students will have less exposure to the language in this context and will be more reliant on the teacher for understanding not only the ins and outs of the English language, but the culture that is attached to it as well.

This is because when we teach a language we are also inadvertently teaching a culture along with it. A student cannot understand the concept of a fur baby unless they understand that many people in Western English-speaking countries enjoy having pets and some people adore them so much as to consider them part of the family and hence the term ‘fur baby’ has arisen to describe this situation. Other simple and surely taken-for-granted concepts like morning tea, engagement ring, superannuation and baby shower cannot be understood unless Western culture is understood as well. So in a TEFL setting you will be a kind of cultural ambassador as well as an English teacher.

In a TESOL situation the students could be living in an English-speaking country which would therefore mean that your job of helping the students understand the culture would be reduced as they will have other people to explain things to them as well and their own experience to learn from. The students will also have much more exposure to the English language and will probably be using English exclusively at school with their friends and teachers. A student learning in this context will probably progress much faster in learning and being able to use the language than a student learning English as a foreign language.

Anything else?

The motivation students have for learning English will probably be different dependent upon the context also. English as a foreign language will most often be learnt as a subject either at schools or institutes and the competency the students achieve in the language can affect their chances for further education or in areas such as business.

Students learning English in an English-speaking environment will also want to be able to do well in school but be able to interact and communicate with people in the community they are living amongst as well.

The context in which you teach can therefore influence

  • What is taught
  • How it is taught
  • The motivation of the students
  • The amount of time students have to practice the language (especially speaking and listening)