What’s the Difference Between TOEFL, TESOL, TESL, ESL, and TEFL?

Here’s a tongue twister:

The TESOL certified teacher taught ESL, using TEFL techniques to Turkish TOEFL candidates

Considering the purpose of TESOL (teaching English as a second language), the industry seems to have an ardor for confusing anagrams.

Even an experienced ESL teacher can have issues with the terminology!

Many of the differences are subtle; however understanding them will help you grow as a teacher.

Let’s start with the basics

ESL: English as a Second Language.

EFL: English as a Foreign Language.

Pretty similar, right?

ESL vs. EFL - More Than Just Terminology

What’s the difference between ESL and EFL?

Consider India in which 30% of the population speaks English.

In fact only The United States has more English speakers than India.

In India, English is the language of governance and business. If you are Indian, English isn’t a foreign language; it’s your language too! It’s your second language (and sometimes third).

Conversely if you’re French, and everyone you know speaks French, English is a foreign language (not to say there aren’t fluent speakers in France).

This distinction will affect the way you teach; if you’re teaching it as second language, the goals may be different; your clients or students may want to use it daily in business.

Also if they’re learning it as a foreign language your clients may only want to be able to navigate a menu on vacation and make a few toasts.

Ultimately, it boils down to the following:

ESL - English is a second (or third, fourth) language in that, like the example of India above.

EFL - English is a foreign language in that country, like in the sample of France above.

You’ll have to adjust your teaching methods according to the goals of your students, therefore this distinction is important. However it is not the only one.

Philosophical differences exist as well.

Many people believe that English is a lingua franca (meaning a trade language). For example if a Chinese businessman, Somali merchant, and Portuguese customs officer choose to conduct business in Bergen; what language will they use to communicate?

Here’s a hint.

It probably won’t be Norwegian, Somali, Portuguese, or Chinese.

With English considered the global language of business in an increasingly globalized world, there are some who would argue that EFL is an outdated term, and that English is everyone’s second language.

Therefore, err on the side of caution and refer to the industry as ESL unless instructed otherwise.


These are extensions of ESL and EFL. 

TEFL: Teacher of English as a Foreign Language 

TESOL: Teacher of English to Students of Other Languages

TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language

In the practical world there isn't much of a difference between getting a TEFL or TESOL certification because they both ultimately allow you to teach English to non-native speakers around the world. A TESL certificate is more helpful if you will teach English in countries where English is already an official language, like in India.


This term is unique as it refers specifically to a test. Like the IELTS the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is an internationally accepted test of English fluency.

Test takers strive to achieve a score of 26 or higher on a one to thirty point score card.

Internationally, TOEFL scores are considered when applying for universities in the United States and other English speaking countries.

The desire to achieve high scores drive much of the English as a second language market, in particular at the late high school to early university levels.

Now that you understand some of the terminology of ESL/EFL you’re ready to build your own career in TEFL/TESL and someday invent confusing anagrams of your own!

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