The distinction between ESL and EFL comes from the native language of the country in which instruction is being given. An ESL classroom is one in which English is the primary national language. On the other hand, an EFL classroom is one in which English is not the native language, as is true of many European countries, where it is common to learn to speak more than one foreign language. For these reasons, ESL is typically the term used in the United States, an English-speaking nation, whereas EFL is more often the term of choice in countries where English is not the native language.
ESL students learn English as a Second Language in a foreign country, where English is the predominant language. This gives them a great deal of opportunity for exposure to target language media outlets, practical language review, and popular culture of the English-speaking world. The ESL student’s relocation into an English-speaking country typically implies a pressing need to learn the English language, such as for a job opportunity in the United States. Since ESL students are already living in an English-speaking environment, they will benefit from learning key words, phrases, and cultural features of daily life in the U.S. that will help them accomplish everyday tasks.
EFL students learn English as a Foreign Language in their home country (or any other country that is not a native English-speaking nation). The pedagogy for EFL classes is similar to what Americans with English as their first language would experience when they set out to learn Spanish, German, or French with an instructor. As EFL students may not have significant exposure to spoken English outside the classroom environment, they benefit from enhanced speaking and listening opportunities in their classes.
ESL classrooms share a target language; EFL classrooms share a native language. Because ESL students are non-native English speakers in an English-speaking country, it is much more likely that an ESL class will have students of varied backgrounds and cultural heritages. Alternatively, since EFL students are often studying English as a foreign language in their home country, it is likely that the average EFL class makeup would be fairly homogeneous.
The terms are often disputed. Part of the ongoing debate around ESL and EFL terminology revolves around the concept of “foreign” languages and the “number” of languages studied. Just because someone learns English in the U.S., for example, it does not automatically follow that English is only his or her second language—it could be the third or fourth, even, depending on that student’s background. In spite of the often tricky name game that results, in both ESL and EFL class settings it is paramount that instructors are educated on their students’ backgrounds and English exposure as well as their personal motivations for learning English in order to make the most out of class time and amplify the learning experience.