ESL vs. EFL: What Is the Difference?


As one of the most spoken languages worldwide, English opens many doors for access to education, global communication, and professional and personal development. Therefore, the importance of English language study programs cannot be overstated. In the world of English language learning, the two terms you’ll hear most often are ESL and EFL. But what exactly do they mean, and where do they differ? 

Follow along as we delve into the differences between ESL vs. EFL teaching, explore the educational requirements for becoming one, and uncover the diverse career opportunities in these fields.

Understanding the Basics

ESL (English as a  Second Language) and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching is based on the same objective: teaching English to students whose native language isn’t English. Although the educational approach is similar for both ESL and EFL teaching, it largely depends on the student’s exposure to English in their daily lives. ESL students are typically immersed in an English-speaking environment, whereas EFL students have limited exposure to English outside the classroom. Let’s look at each of them more closely. 

What is ESL?

ESL refers to teaching English as a second language to non-native speakers in an English-speaking country. The term is more prevalent in the US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, and Australia. ESL teaching typically involves a diverse classroom with students from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Thus, ESL learners often need more help with grammar and pronunciation to communicate effectively. 

What is EFL?

EFL stands for teaching English as a foreign language in a country where English is not the primary language. This term is widely used overseas. Students in an EFL class typically come from a similar background and have a shared experience of living in a non-English-speaking country. They focus on developing fluency in English and understanding cultural references that come with the language.

Education Requirements


Although educational requirements for becoming an ESL or EFL teacher are similar, they differ on the type of certification. 

English as a second language

The educational qualifications needed for ESL teaching include:

  • Completing a bachelor’s degree in English, education, linguistics, or a related field.
  • Obtaining ESL training from an ESL school
  • Earning a master’s degree in education focusing on TESOL, applied linguistics, or ESL. 

To become an ESL teacher, you also need to obtain ESL certifications, such as:  

  • TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language
  • DELTA: Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults
  • CELTA: Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults

English as a foreign language

Similarly to ESL teaching requirements, the steps to becoming an EFL teacher include:

  • A bachelor’s degree.
  • Training from an EFL school.
  • Optionally earning a master’s degree.

A crucial requirement for becoming an EFL teacher is earning TEFL certification from a reputable organization in the field. 

Career Opportunities


ESL and EFL teaching offer diverse career paths and opportunities besides the traditional path of working as a teacher in schools, language institutes, and universities. Depending on your interests, lifestyle, certifications, and level of education, you can choose from a variety of ESL and EFL jobs.

English as a second language

The  diverse spectrum of ESL teaching jobs includes career paths such as: 

  • Online teacher: As an online teacher, you’ll employ tools such as video conferences and interactive platforms for language learning. Additionally, you’ll be responsible for fostering a virtual learning community and creating engaging online lessons. 
  • Tutor: An ESL tutoring position allows you to provide focused language instruction to individuals or small groups, including tailoring lessons to optimize language acquisition. 
  • Curriculum developer: Becoming a curriculum developer allows you to improve ESL education by designing and refining instructional materials and programs. You’ll also be able to align the curriculum with pedagogical trends and ensure that learning materials promote cultural understanding. 
  • Program manager: As a program manager, you’ll be responsible for the administrative and operational aspects of ESL education. This means assessing program effectiveness, developing program goals, and coordinating staff, among other things.

English as a foreign language

EFL teaching is a diverse field encompassing a wide range of career paths, such as:

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  • Coordinator and senior teacher: These senior teaching positions involve management responsibilities, including mentoring and observing other teachers, student placement, program evaluation, and curricula and timetabling development. 
  • Examiner: You can also become an English proficiency examiner for TOEFL, IELTS, or other standardized tests. 
  • Director of studies (DoS): As a DoS, you’ll be responsible for a school’s academic aspects, such as managing staff and overseeing curriculum development.

You can also work with refugees and asylum seekers within English-speaking countries at a local council, government level, or with charities. Such roles allow you to help refugees a smoother transition to their new lives in a foreign land.

Financial Considerations


Although both ESL and EFL teaching can be financially rewarding, before deciding on your future career, you should consider a few factors, such as:

  • Salary range: The salary range for ESL and EFL teachers typically depends on the demand for English teachers, with countries with a high demand typically paying more. The highest-paying countries for EFL teachers include the UAE, Japan, Qatar, Kuwait, South Korea, and others, with salaries ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 per month. 
  • Cost of living: Whether working in the US or abroad, the cost of living is critical in helping you choose the optimal location and role for your personal and professional development. On average, the cost of living in the US is around $2500-$3,500. The areas with the highest cost of living are usually metropolitan areas, such as San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. On the other hand, the average cost of living for EFL teachers in the highest-paying countries is about $1000.
  • Benefits: The benefits package for both ESL and EFL teachers can include housing allowance, relocation allowance, flights home, and government health care. Moreover, your salary will most likely be tax-free, allowing you to save money each month. 

The Bottom Line

Although ESL and EFL share many similarities, their core difference lies in the location of the learners. ESL refers to non-native speakers learning English while residing in an English-speaking country, while EFL refers to learners in a non-English-speaking country. Despite this difference, both programs share the same objective: to provide learners with proficiency in the English language.

If you’re passionate about the English language and want to help non-native speakers enrich their lives in an English-speaking country, a career in ESL or EFL would be perfect for you. Therefore, we invite you to explore our TEFL course as it could be the first step towards a thrilling future across the world.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is ESL outdated?

No, ESL isn’t outdated. While the English teaching landscape is evolving and moving toward using more inclusive terms such as ELD (English language development), ESL’s principles and goals still remain relevant.  

What is the difference between ESL and ELD?

Although both ESL and ELD are educational programs designed to help students learn English, ELD focuses on integrating language learning across various academic subjects such as math, science, history, and social science.

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