The terminology of English language learning

This page explores the issue of terminology in English language teaching and learning.


For several decades, ESL student (English as a second language) was the term typically used to refer to non-native English students in English-medium schools. Their special English teachers were called ESL teachers and they learned in ESL lessons.

Recently, however, there has been a debate as to the appropriateness of the term ESL for such students. Several alternatives have been suggested, but none of these are without problems of their own.

Alternative term (UK and international schools)

Some people are unhappy with the term ESL students because this apparently implies that English is the first foreign language that non-native speakers should learn. In any case, they rightly say that English might in fact be the learner's third or fourth language.

A popular alternative is EAL learners, i.e. English as an additional language learners. This term is now common in the UK and in European international schools, but is currently not well known in the USA. For example, see this TESOL glossary which lists ESL but not EAL.

Furthermore, the EAL acronym is potentially ambiguous because it also stands for English as an academic language.

Alternative terms (USA)

In the USA the term LEP (limited English proficient) students was popular for a time. However, there was a backlash from some people who felt that this term was too negative and suggested PEPs (potentially English proficient) instead.

Currently, the most common terms, however, seem to be ELL (English language learner) or simply EL (English learner). But it has been pointed out that all native English speakers are ELL/ELs too.

So we are clearly still some way from a long-lasting consensus on what to call non-native learners of English in English-medium schools.

Terminology on this site

This site continues to use the somewhat problematic term ESL when referring to non-native students, their lessons, their special English teachers, and the school programmes that support them.

There are three reasons for this:

  • ESL was the term used in all of the 30+ years of my teaching at Frankfurt International School, when most of these pages were created. For a very large majority of the students I taught over this period, English was indeed the second language they were learning.

    In any case, it would be a significant amount of basically pointless work to change everything to a different designation which might itself be deprecated in the years to come.
  • The field of research into the learning of a language other than the mother tongue is Second Language Acquisition (SLA), not Additional Language Acquisition (ALA) or any alternative. The term Second Language Acquisition is unlikely to change; there is just too much research already published in this field.
  • ESL is probably the most common search term for this topic. By continuing to use the acronym throughout the site, it should be easier for people to find relevant information and advice concerning non-native English speakers in English-medium schools.

If anyone is nevertheless troubled by the (S)econd in ESL, they can perhaps read it as meaning (S)ubsequent.

Further reading

Here's an article that covers the same issue of terminology in English language teaching:

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