top of page

EAL, ESL, EFL, MFL! What's the difference (and does it really matter?)

There are myriad terms used to describe languages in education, and it's often seen as a minor issue to choose a title for a language provision. Appearances can be deceptive though, and what we choose as a category for a language has implications for how we envision the curriculum and pedagogy. In this post I am going to define some of the most common terms, and discuss what the associated curricula and pedagogical approached are.

1. English as an additional language (EAL); English language acquisition (ELA); English language learning (ELL)

These terms cover the most commonly used titles for English language teaching and learning in international schools. They are used to designate provisions for students who are not fluent speakers of English in English Medium Instruction (EMI) schools. All of these terms focus on the need to learn English, and on the teaching and learning of English specifically. They are often used to designate students to additional language learning provisions. Students who are EAL/ELA/ELL designated spend almost all of their school days immersed in English, whether in mainstream classes or in bespoke language classes. Thus, they receive a high level of English input, but their success is high-stakes - how well they learn English will impact all of their academic success.

Curriculum traditions and expectations: EAL/ELA/ELL teaching is expected to be connected to the curriculum of the school. These students need to learn the type of English that will help them access content learning, and to produce academic English in oral and written forms. In a strong EAL/ELA/ELL provision, the students will be provided with immediate support for basic English developments (BICS) and on-going support for language connected to the curriculum.

Pedagogy: EAL/ELA/ELL is generally structured around stand alone support for new arrivals, and integrated support for designated students in the classroom, with collaboration between class teachers and language specialists. An ideal pedagogy focuses on connecting language learning to the language needs of the curriculum, and provides explicit support for literacy (reading and writing) at all ages.

Position in school: EAL/ELA/ELL should be a separate department, situated in a central location of the school. It should not fall into "student support services" or other department that problematises the very natural language development of students who are acquiring the school language.


2. English as a Foreign Language (EFL); Modern Foreign Languages (MFL); World Languages

EFL tends to get its own term because of its prevalence globally (and the teaching and publishing industry associated with it) but in fact it represents the same teaching and learning situation as MFL. Languages taught as a foreign language are being taught in a situation/locality where they are not spoken/used in the community. The teaching of French in the US, Spanish in the UK, and English in China all fall into this category. The amount of time dedicated to foreign language teaching varies, but generally the input is limited to a few hours (maximum) a week for school children. MFL learning is generally lower-stakes; it's important as a subject area, but success or lack of success will not impact other areas of learning.

Curriculum traditions and expectations: Foreign language teaching is generally focused on developing language skills related to every day life. Much foreign language teaching is textbook-based, with chapters on various themes (My family; Sports and hobbies; Travel) that develop language used for basic communication. In some circumstances, older or more advanced learners will study English for Specific Purposes (ESP), which is focused around a particular study or work area.

Pedagogy: Foreign language teaching has undergone many changes over the years. From the traditional Grammar Translation approach to the more recent Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and Task-based language teaching (TBLT), there are still many iterations of foreign language teaching globally. What they have in common is that they are taught in discrete lessons, for a limited number of hours per week. Even when they are part of a school curriculum, they are unlikely to be linked to any of the main curricular learning.

Position in school: EFL/MFL provisions are often very different in primary schools than in secondary. In primary schools there is often less time designated for MFL, and therefore only very large schools have the luxury of a language department. In some places, the MFL teacher at primary may be fully qualified and well resourced, and in others, they may be the only teacher who speaks a bit of another language, but have no training. In extreme cases, which are becoming more common due to the continuing push to "Early English", the teachers are simply class teachers, who may speak the language only a little, but are expected to teach it anyway. In secondary school there is generally an MFL department.


3. Host Country Language

This one is a beast all of its own, and I've never heard another term for it (please let me know if you have!). In international education, it is used to designate the teaching of the language of the country the school is situated in. Most international schools made at least a token effort to teach the host country language, so it has developed into a new category of language teaching. How much time is dedicated to host country language teaching varies immensely, but is generally not more that one class period a day. Host country language teaching is also complicated by the variation in students; many schools have students in the same year group who are complete beginners, and others who are native speakers. Multilevel groups are the norm, as is the constant arrival of new students at the complete beginner level. Host country language can be high or low-stakes, depending on the situation of individual learners.

Curriculum traditions and expectations: The main complication for host country language teaching is that there is no curriculum base to draw on. Host country language teaching often draws on foreign language teaching materials, but these are not fully adequate, as students are living in the language (outside school) and need development that will help them participate in the community. Some schools have high numbers of local children who are native speakers of the host country language, and choose to use curricular materials for native speaker children. This also is not always a good fit, as those materials are developed for students who are doing all of their schooling in the language, and have much more input in the language. A hybrid curriculum, developed in-house to meet the needs of the school and students is the best way forward.

Pedagogy: Host country language teaching also varies immensely, but in my experience it is often very traditional language teaching that does not take advantage of the rich opportunities outside the school doors. For schools with a transient population, language teaching that focuses on reading and writing (and grammar and spelling...) in the classroom will do more to alienate the students from the host country language than to encourage them to learn it. Host country language teaching that focuses on getting out into the community and learning to interact with people will be more meaningful and motivating. For schools with local students, classes separate from the non-fluent speakers are important, and developing a pedagogy that encourages cross-disciplinary connections, rather than solely focusing on language and literature will provide students with broader language development opportunities.

Position in school: Host country language teaching is often situated in the MFL department, or in schools where it has a greater presence it may have its own department. There is often very little effort to align the curricular and pedagogical practices with the main school approach to teaching and learning, so many HCL departments exist in their own bubble in the school.

Here is a link to a separate post I wrote about Host Country Languages.


4. Home Languages

I'm putting this one in here as a placeholder, as it's obviously of growing importance. It would take too much space to give it the discussion it needs, so I will direct you to this post I wrote about home languages in international schools.


Terms that have fallen out of favour: ESL, LEP, MFL (I hope...)

What we now call EAL/ELA/ELL was, for a long time, called ESL (English as a second language). This term dropped from use simply because it is rarely accurate in education. It is still used in some contexts (for French or English in Canada, for example) as it refers to people learning the second official language of the country they live in. In most school contexts, it only represents a small number of the students who are learning the school language as a second language; for many of them it is a third (or more) language, which provoked the shift to EAL. LEP (Limited English Proficient) is still used in some places in the US, and obviously is not a good choice at all.

I personally don't like the term MFL, and prefer World Languages. I think that MFL leads people to think about the traditionally taught European languages (French, German) to the exclusion of other languages that are important globally (Chinese, Korean, Spanish) or languages that are important locally (minority languages), although one could argue that minority languages are also likely to get side-lined if using the designation World Languages.


Why does it matter what we call the language teaching we are engaged in? In schools, it matters because what we call it often influences where we situate it in a school, and how it is taught. For example, trying to put EAL into the MFL department would lead the teaching teams to believe that the curricular and pedagogical approaches should be similar, when in fact they should not. In a similar way, letting HCL stay separate from other teaching groups discourages integration into the school and learning philosophy. I would argue that schools should have a "Languages Department" with a head that oversees the individual provisions.This person should have a broad understanding of language teaching and learning across the provisions, and work to develop each area appropriately. Each provision (EAL/World Languages/Host Country Language) should have a learning leader responsible for their provision, but working within the greater team. This also leads to better understanding of student language profiles as being a composite of their development in all languages, rather than in isolation. In keeping with this, I prefer to use the term multilingual learners for individual students, and EAL/HCL, World Languages for the language provisions they are enrolled in, rather than using the term to label the students themselves.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page