An Alphabet Soup of English Language Learning

Image courtesy of Vlado/

Image courtesy of Vlado/

ESL? ELL? TOEFL? It seems as if you are swimming in a veritable ‘alphabet soup’ of letters when it comes to the acronyms assigned to the learning of English. At times, they could be confusing to tell what is what. Some are used in education, others for government definitions, while others for business. To add to the confusion, both the United States and the United Kingdom may have slightly different definitions regarding specific terms. Let’s take a look at what the most common ones mean in the U.S.


Acronyms when you are student of the English language

ESL – English as a Second Language. When a speaker has a native tongue and uses or studies English as a secondary language. Primarily, this term is used in relation to teaching and learning English, but sometimes it is used for demographic reasons. Often this term is played down because some argue that the speaker may already know more than one language. It is used in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.

ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages is the phrase used in the U.K. in place of ESL.

EAL – English as an Additional Language. This takes into account that a student may already be fluent in multiple languages. It also reinforces the idea that English is not replacing the native tongue.

ELL – English Language Learner. Any student who is learning English when it is not their mother tongue.

EL – English Learner. A student learning English.


Acronyms associated with teaching English to non-English speakers

TESL – Teaching English as a Second Language.

TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

TOEFL – Teaching Others English as a Foreign Language or TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

ELT – English Language Teaching.


As if those weren’t enough, here are even more acronyms related to learning English

EFL – English as a Foreign Language. When English is taught in a non-English speaking country either as part of a school curriculum or at home. It could be for personal enrichment, academics, or travel. It is often used to pass exams or advance a career in a business where English is the shared language.

ELF – English as a Lingua Franca. When English is used as a common language among speakers of different first languages. An example is when business negotiations are conducted in English whether or not the participants come from English speaking countries.

ESP – English for Specific Purposes. This English use typically assumes that the speaker has some basic knowledge of the language. It is designed for specific disciplines typically in an institution of higher learning or a professional work situation.

EAP – English for Academic Purposes. Preparing students to use English appropriately for study in higher education settings.

CLD – Culturally and Linguistically Diverse. This broad concept encompasses the differences that exist between people such as language and other things related to culture.

LEP – Limited English Proficient. When a person is unable to communicate effectively in English because they have a different primary language and have not developed fluency in English.

BE – Bilingual Education. When students with little to no fluency are taught English in a English language school system along with their native language.

TOEFL – Test of English as a Foreign Language. This standardized test measures the English proficiency level of non-native English language speakers wishing to enroll in U.S. universities.


Making your head swim yet? Unfortunately, teachers of English and government entities cannot come to an agreement over the terms. It varies regionally and globally. This has only increased the amount of alphabet soup to wade through.


Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype









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