You say TESOL and I say TESL, or TEFL, or… Is the English language teaching world a community with identity issues?

Given that the intended benefactors of all English language teaching are students, people who by definition are likely to have difficulty understanding such confusingly similar acronyms in English, it is ironic not only that we have so many of them in English language teaching (ELT), but that understandings of their meanings also vary significantly among us as ELT educators. Yet once the initial smokescreen of acronym confusion clears, it is evident that there persists a far bigger issue at root – our assumptions regarding what we are teaching, to whom and why, assumptions which for many of us appear to have persisted despite the many and massive changes that the ELT world has undergone over the last 30 years.

Quickly Google the following: ‘What’s the difference between ESL…’ Then stop there, and Google’s auto complete function will illustrate the initial confusion I’m talking about. Nearly all of the alternatives for completing this question involve acronyms, so many of which are situated, arguably entrenched, in specific approaches to language teaching and learning:

‘What’s the difference between ESL and EFL / ESOL / CELTA / TESOL / CertTESOL / TOEFL / EFL / ELF / ELL / EAL?’


It’s easily enough to make potential English teachers give up before they start, let alone language learners. Now read some of the answers and you will notice contradictions, either between what different writers are saying in response to the same question, or between what you thought you knew and what the writer thinks they know. Either way, these acronyms do not really appear to be describing anything stable across communities, or even within them. Let’s take the most common distinction that we think we all know:

What’s the difference between TESL and TEFL?

Well of course, we could begin by citing the literature, arguing that the distinction made by Kachru (e.g. 1992) between EFL (English in outer circle countries where English has no official status) and ESL (English in countries where English does have official status, but not including inner circle countries, where English is a native language; ENL) should logically stand when the ‘T’ for ‘teaching’ is added, but unfortunately, it is no way near that simple. Just as supermarkets don’t listen to botanists when deciding to put tomatoes in the salad vegetable section rather than the fruit section, common parlance with regard to the use of these acronyms has absolutely nothing to do with, and cannot be controlled by, academic use of these terms. Through various web searches we learn that TEFL refers to teaching English ‘abroad’, which is, if you think about it, quite a relative word in the given context… Or that TEFL is kind of industry, but TESL relates to teaching ‘immigrants and refugees’ in countries where English is a ‘native language’ (whatever that means). Or that TEFL and TESL are two branches of TESOL, a superordinate category. For others, TEFL and TESOL are synonymous, and for others still, all three terms are synonymous.

Slippery ground


With so much of the language in these definitions, we find ourselves on very slippery ground. Given the plethora of ‘Englishes’ worldwide (Jenkins 2009), and the complexities and varieties of ‘nativeness’ with regard to its usage and ownership, and the different ways in which some people who travel are considered ‘immigrants’, others are considered ‘refugees’ and yet I have only ever been an ‘expat’, despite spending almost half my adult career as an exile from my home country.

Can we perhaps agree on what we mean by TESOL?

Indeed, we don’t even need to compare acronyms. TESOL has, in its history, stood for both ‘Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages’ and ‘Teaching English as a Second or Other Language’, and while in the majority of current usage it is the former, we should also note that for the U.S.-based organisation that includes this acronym in its name (, it does in fact stand for ‘Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.’. They suggest that TESOL (as Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) can be used as a general superordinate to include both TEFL and TESL. Yet in the UK, TESOL generally refers to what in the USA the term ‘TESL’ is used to denote; teaching English to so-called ‘migrants and refugees’.

Perhaps TEFL is easier?

For Americans, TEFL is quite a simple term – it refers to all the English teaching that happens overseas (except in the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, probably South Africa, maybe Jamaica, possibly Hong Kong and Singapore…), yet come to London and you’ll find lots of TEFL schools teaching TEFL lessons to learners with typical EFL learner profiles (the majority of them would not class themselves as refugees or migrants). Basically in the UK, if you’ve promise to go ‘home’ when you’ve ‘finished’ learning, you’re a TEFL student, and you are treated as an economic statistic, rather than a demographic one. Nope. It seems TEFL is no simpler.

More fundamental problems in the ‘science’ underpinning our field

Second language acquisition (SLA) research is one of the two main academic fields potentially capable of usefully informing our practice as language teachers (alongside general pedagogic research). Yet here too we find identity issues. A significant number of influential writers, including Rod Ellis (1997), David Block (2003) and Diane Larsen-Freeman (e.g. Cameron & Larsen-Freeman, 2007) have all argued that either one, two or all three of the words used to name this field are misleading descriptors for the very processes that the field attempts to describe.

‘S’ for ‘Second’

In the Introduction to the first edition of ‘The Study of Second Language Acquisition’ (1997, p. 11), Rod Ellis notes a key misnomer inherent in our use of the term ‘second’ – it presumes that learners are monolingual, even though multilingualism is the norm in many cultures worldwide. He goes on to suggest that “in such settings, the term ‘additional language’ may be more appropriate and more acceptable”, a suggestion also made by David Block (2003, p. 57), who goes on to conclude somewhat despondently:

“Nevertheless, I am all too aware that changing SLA to ALA (additional language acquisition) would be the kind of seismic shift that academic fields seldom, if ever impose themselves.”

‘A’ for ‘Acquisition’

Ellis (1997) refuses to accept Krashen’s (1981) acquisition/learning distinction “not least because of the difficulty of demonstrating whether the knowledge learners possess is of the ‘acquired’ or ‘learnt’ kind.” (Ellis, 1997, p. 14). Block (2003, p. 109) argues from a sociocultural perspective that the ‘A’ in ‘SLA’ might more usefully stand for ‘Activity’. Cameron and Larsen-Freeman (2007) go further to argue that ‘development’ is a more appropriate term than ‘acquisition’ to describe the reality of language learning within a complex systems theory perspective:

“A complex systems view of language rejects the notion of language as something that is taken in – a static commodity that one acquires and therefore possesses (Larsen-Freeman 2002). Instead, we see language as much a process as a product, something in which one participates (Sfard 1998). Because language is a dynamic system, continuously changing, its potential too is always being developed, and it is never fully realised.” (Cameron & Larsen-Freeman 2007, p. 231)

‘L’ for ‘Language’

Block (2003) also criticises the rather narrow understanding of ‘language’ among many researchers in the SLA field, arguing that a wider, socially based understanding is necessary, one that can account for all areas of communicative competence, not just linguistic. More recent theorising on the concept of translingualism by Pennycook (2008), Canagarajah (2013) and others, has argued not only that the borders between languages, often perceived as being fairly fixed and obvious by users that habituate predominantly monolingual communities, are in fact much more porous and context dependent. Canagarajah recognises that our choice of linguistic resources is as negotiable as other features of communication, using the term ‘alignment’ to describe a type of translingual accommodation between interlocutors.

Potential implications?

The implications that we draw from these influential writers and their ideas should be huge. The very academic field, ‘SLA’ seems to be premised upon monolingual assumptions that can no longer be supported, given what we know about language as a complex translingual system, what we understand about language use and what we understand about language users, all of which, at least in multilingual contexts, confounds these monolingual assumptions. Thus we could argue that the field of second language acquisition needs to be renamed, with a number of potential options in the offing:

  1. Additional Language Learning (ALL) – the simplest viable option, already used in some institutional contexts, including primary teaching in the UK.
  2. Additional Language Development (ALD) – possible if we accept Larsen-Freeman’s arguments that there is no end state of acquisition for language learners (2006).
  3. Multilingual Development (MD) – if we combine Vivian Cook’s (e.g. 1995) arguments with those of Larsen-Freeman.
  4. Translingual Development (TD) – if we recognise translingualism as the norm.

It can then be argued that this should have implications for the acronyms used to describe English language learning and teaching at the start of this article. Perhaps the superordinate category should not be ‘TESOL’, and definitely not ‘TEFL’, but ‘TEAL’ – Teaching English as an Additional Language. Within this, it is likely that we will continue to need to make some kind of distinction between perhaps the two most predominant reasons for learning and using English – communicating internationally or interculturally (i.e. using English as a lingua franca) and integrating into an English-speaking community in countries where English is the main national language. For this perhaps we could borrow the acronyms ‘ELF’ (English as a Lingua Franca) and ‘ENL’ (English as a National Language, rather than ‘Native’) from the lingua franca community (e.g. Seidlhofer, 2001), with the two teaching roles being TELF and TENL, respectively… Perhaps.

Alternatively, we can continue to use inappropriate acronyms founded on misguided assumptions and monolingual prejudices in divergent ways to mean different things, apparently in the blissful ignorance that we understand each other. Surely at least we (and here I suppose I mean both the English language teaching community and the applied linguistics community) should be having some kind of discussion on this topic, shouldn’t we?


Block, D. (2003) The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cameron, L. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (2007) Complex systems and applied linguistics. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 17: 226-240.

Canagarajah, A. S. (2013) Translingual Practice. New York: Routledge.

Cook, V. (1995) Multi-competence and the learning of many languages. Language, Culture and Curriculum 8: 93-98.

Ellis, R. (1997) The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2009) World Englishes. London: Routledge.

Kachru, B. B. (1992) World Englishes: Approaches, issues and resources. Language Teaching 25: 1-14.

Krashen, S. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2006) Second language acquisition and the issue of fossilisation: There is no end, and there is no state. In Z. Han & T. Odlin (Eds.) Studies of Fossilisation in Second Language Acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 189-200.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2002) Language acquisition and language use from a chaos/complexity theory perspective. In C. Kramsch (Ed.) Language Acquisition and Language Socialisation. London: Continuum. 33–46.

Pennycook, A. (2008) Translingual English. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 31: 30.1-30.9.

Seidlhofer, B. (2001) Closing the conceptual gap: The case for description of English as a lingua franca. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 11: 133-158.

Sfard, A. (1998) On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher March: 4–13.


One thought on “You say TESOL and I say TESL, or TEFL, or… Is the English language teaching world a community with identity issues?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s