English Language

The TEFL / TESL conundrum

If you go to any of the big bookstores, and peruse the English language shelves, you will probably find books that have either EFL or ESL written on the cover. These are usually English language learning textbooks or workbooks. Then, just for fun, ask the sales clerk, “What’s the difference between EFL and ESL?”. Then, sit back and watch as they either delve in the confusion, spin some fantastic tales, or go to look for a supervisor. I have done this a few times, and have yet to get a definitive answer. Then again you are not expected to know, so it is an unfair thing to do for amusement.
In fact, many English language teachers are also unclear on the definition. I have asked. So what exactly is the difference?
I consulted dictionary.com and it says that ESL stand “for English as a second language: the study of English by non-native speakers in an English-speaking environment” while EFL stands for, “English as a foreign language: the study of English by nonnative speakers living in a non-English-speaking environment”. Sounds clear enough. Or does it?
Consider this; in Malaysia, are we teaching in an EFL environment or an ESL environment? Lets take it apart.
First, our students are indeed non-native speakers of English. Of course, there are communities that claim to be native-English speakers because they speak the language all their lives, which is true. Then we need to delve into the question of standards: are they speaking standard English? This is also a curious question because very very few people in the world actually speak “standard English”, not even in the UK. A Londoner, for example, does not speak “Standard English”, they speak Londoner English. And, if they belong to the Indian community in London, they probably speak the English of that community, innit? The point is, however, while we are non-native English language speakers, english language speakers are abundant in Malaysia.
Second, a central difference between teaching EFL and teaching ESL, has to do with teaching material and content. If you are teaching in an EFL environment, chances are there little or no English language usage available to the the teacher and student to access to practice the language. It is for this reason that Skype was once very popular among English language learners in countries like China. They use it to practice the language. So, what about in Malaysia? In this sense, I say that Malaysia is very much an ESL environment because there is English everywhere in Malaysia. Just look at the billboards beside our roads. Many of them are in Malay and they have English translations. I can easily get the New Straits Times and Malay Mail when I am in Kampung Tepus, Kelantan. English language radio channels are a mere twist of the knob away. We have a lot of English language content in various forms on our television, terrestrial, satellite, or internet.
I firmly believe that we are definitely in an ESL environment. So, with all that English language available, and all those English language speakers around, how is it that we find many of our students who have spent decades taking English language lessons, and having English language available to them at the touch of their fingertips, yet can only manage little more than, “yes”, “no”, and “alright”?
The answer is simple, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.

Categories: English Language, Language

1 reply »

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