What is TEFL anyway?

What is TEFL anyway?

TEFL, TESOL, ESOL, ELT, CELTA, EAL, EAP, ESP etc. The list of acronyms (abbreviations consisting of the first letters of each word in the name of something, pronounced as a word, for example IKEA or UNICEF) initialisms (like acronyms but each letter is pronounced separately such as the BBC or the FBI) and abbreviations (short forms of words or phrases) is maddening. Terms vary from country to country and a term in one place may have a different meaning elsewhere.


TEFL  is probably the most common term (at least in Europe) and it stands for:

Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

There it is, simple isn’t it? ELT is another term I like to use and I’ll use this to refer to the English Language Teaching industry. Now, lots of people in this industry have a problem with the term TEFL because of the internationalisation of the English language – known as EIL (English as an International Language) or ELF (English as a lingua franca).

Is it accurate to say that English is a ‘foreign language’ in many countries where it is studied and used almost as deftly as the native tongue? Let’s be honest, your average 25 year-old Norwegian is as comfortable using English as many Brits, Americans or Australians. In fact, they may speak a version which is closer to the ‘standard and correct’ version than many native speakers (people whose mother tongue is English) who speak in a regional dialect with distinct grammatical structures, vocabulary items and pronunciation features.

Anyway, TEFL is what I shall be talking about; other terms might be used but they are mostly interchangeable unless you are having an academic discussion. I’ll be referring to the type of teaching that occurs in classrooms all over the world where a group of adults, children or adolescents turn up to speak with and learn from a teacher who supposedly speaks better English (wider vocabulary, awareness of formal grammar structures and accuracy and fluency when writing and speaking) than they do.

For many students, the only type of teacher they feel can do this job effectively is a native speaker teacher.

This might seem reasonable but just consider this for a moment: imagine going to, let’s say, Liverpool in the UK or Alabama in the USA and listening to the local native English speakers. Do they use the same variety as presenters on the BBC or CNN?

Rightly or wrongly, many students believe that the best way to learn ‘correct’ English is from a native speaker. If one is not available, the next best option is a non-native speaker (a person whose second, third or eighth language is English) who has mastered English and has no problems communicating with native speakers of English (our 25 year old Norwegian for example).

As a last resort, many students will begrudgingly accept classes with a teacher from their own country who is able to communicate more effectively in English than they can. It’s not really fair on non-native teachers of English but there is, unfortunately, a considerable amount of discrimination in the TEFL world. Click here if you want to join the campaign for TEFL equity.

But, why do so many people want to learn English?

There are several main reasons. They may need it to integrate into a society where people speak English in their daily lives (integrative motivation) or they need it to improve their study or work prospects – (instrumental motivation).

In many countries, English is mandatory in schools, colleges or universities (extrinsic motivation). There are those unusual souls who love it for its own sake (intrinsic motivation) and want to read Charles Dickens in the original language or understand the lyrics of Bob Dylan or their favourite rap artist but I doubt if they form the majority.

However, it’s also true that many people learn English in order to have a voice in the global community through social media such as Twitter or Facebook.

To sum up, TEFL is teaching English to people who don’t speak it as a first language. People do this all over the world from Afghanistan to Zanzibar.

There is also a huge market for teaching English to non-native learners (students or immigrants on the whole) in English speaking countries (The UK, the USA, Australia, Canada, Ireland etc.) but relatively few positions in countries where the majority of citizens are bilingual (Sweden, Norway, Gibraltar). This means that many teachers go abroad for a few years, enjoy the work and then find teaching jobs in their own countries.

A TEFL certificate is often described as being a passport to the world. With it, you can live and work (with a few exceptions) anywhere you want to.

2 thoughts on “What is TEFL anyway?

    • This is where it gets really confusing!!

      TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language, whereas TESOL generally refers to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. TESOL is also the name of the training course for teachers that is validated by Trinity College, London.

      According the their website:

      The Trinity Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CertTESOL) is a TESOL or TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate designed for those with little or no experience of teaching English.

      So, as you can see, even Trinity College use the terms TESOL and TEFL interchangeably.

      Sorry I can’t be of more help but there seems to be little consistency in how these terms are used.


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