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TOEFL Tip #86: ESL vs. EFL: Why the difference matters on the TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 11, 2011

Today’s post highlights the differences between ESL and EFL, and why that matters for the TOEFL exam. Even though the “F” in the name TOEFL indicates that the test is for English as a “foreign” language, it’s really a test of English as a SECOND language. Understanding this difference will help you do well on the test.

So what’s the difference between ESL and EFL? Both terms refer to someone whose first language is not English. ESL stands for English as a Second Language and EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. Both terms refer to how important English is in the country where the speaker lives – how often someone has to speak or read English to get through a typical day. The ESL speaker lives in a country where English is the primary language, and the EFL speaker lives in a country where there is a different primary language, although some English is spoken. We usually think that EFL students live in a country where English isn’t spoken very much, and that ESL students are surrounded by English all of the time.

But that isn’t always true – it depends a lot on the choices students make.

Sometimes, our students who live in America – and who should be learning English as a Second Language – don’t do well on the TOEFL because they are actually living as if English were a Foreign Language. Any one or more of the following situations keep English as a foreign language for these students, rather than making English their second language:

• They live with family or friends who speak their native language
• Their computer’s operating system is in their native language
• They use search engines (like Google and Yahoo) in their native language
• They rent movies in their native language
• They read the news (in print or on the web) in their native language

In all of these examples – as well as many others – students do not hear spoken English, and do not read written English as part of their daily lives. They have an English class for 1 hour a day, a few times a week, which is more like an EFL experience than an ESL experience. Unless students choose to read and speak English throughout the day, every day, they will not learn enough English to count it as a second language.

This is why our clients who live in countries where English isn’t part of daily life often do better on the TOEFL: they purposefully force themselves to live an ESL lifestyle. They KNOW they have little English around them, so they hunt it out constantly. Ironically, students who live where English is the main language think that their American address alone counts as an ESL experience. But it doesn’t. Passive reception of English is not the same as active production of English – for example, thinking in it, speaking in it, reading and writing in it.

If you live in an English-speaking country but haven’t been performing as well on the TOEFL as you expected, check the list above. Changing as many of those items as you can, so that you’re surrounded by English all of the time, will very likely help your score on the next test.

Categories: TOEFL Preparation

3 comments so far. Leave a comment.

  1. StrictlyEnglish | Blog » Translation program pitfalls

    wrote on February 25, 2011 at 9:01 am

    [...] an EFL speaker would do; it is not what someone who’s trying to become and ESL speaker would do. Two weeks ago, we discussed the differences between English as a Second Language and English as a Foreign [...]

  2. StrictlyEnglish | Blog » TOEFL Tip #152: Improving Your Comprehension

    wrote on April 20, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    [...] for success in those sections of the exam. Perhaps you’re already listening to public radio and limiting your use of your native language in your daily routine. Doing this will improve your comprehension in English, but how can you gauge (dictionary def) your [...]

  3. StrictlyEnglish | Blog » TOEFL Tip #149: Immerse Yourself In English

    wrote on November 29, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    [...] we noted in Tip #86, Strictly English has repeatedly seen that students who have very little exposure to English [...]

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