TEFL or TESOL — What’s the Difference?

TEFL or TESOL? CELTA and ESL? When you’re first starting to think about teaching English abroad, the whole game can seem like all the players know the rules and you’re left on the sidelines just trying to figure it out. Right?

We felt the same way, too.

One of the most confusing things in the industry is how many acronyms are used, and often without explanation. So, what is the difference between them all?

We’re so glad you asked.

TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language

This is the term used for training instructors to teach English to non-native speakers in their home country. For example, a native speaker from Australia might take a TEFL course in Costa Rica to learn how to teach English to locals there. It is our preferred term, and the one you’ll see throughout the site, though it is often interchangeable with TESOL, ESL and EFL.

TESOL: Teaching English as a Second or Other Language

tefl or tesol
Joanne teaching ESL in Thailand. Read her experience here. 

English language instruction for non-native speakers in native-speaking countries, like the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa is referred to as TESOL. Since the rules are basically the same whether you’re teaching non-native speakers in Thailand (TEFL) or in Canada (TESOL), the two acronyms are commonly used to mean the same thing.

TESOL, however, is also the name of a professional organization in the U.S. that represents teachers of this category.

ESL: English as a Second Language

This is most often used in English-speaking countries like the U.S. to refer to those involved with teaching or learning English as a second language. For example, immigrants in the U.S. might take an ESL class, and we would call their instructors ESL teachers.

EFL: English as a Foreign Language

Likewise, if a teacher were to go to a country where English is not the native language, like Nicaragua, his/her students would be learning English as a foreign language (EFL), and we would call him/her an EFL teacher.

CELTA: Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults 

This is a branded course developed in the U.K. by the University of Cambridge meant primarily, as the name suggests: to instruct how to teach English to adults. It’s a widely recognized course brand, similar to TESOL in the U.S.

YL: Young Learners

tefl or tesol

Not all courses offer a differentiation in age range for students, though you may see some that offer a curriculum meant specifically for teaching English to young learners.

BP: Business Professionals

Since TEFL is a growing industry, many businesses are joining up and hiring teachers to instruct their employees right onsite. For this reason, some courses might offer a curriculum meant specifically for adults in the business world.

Hopefully this helped give you a brief introduction to the confusing system of acronyms so commonly used in the world of teaching English. Next time someone asks you what’s the difference between TEFL and TESOL, you can explain! You’ll undoubtedly have other questions, and we invite you to ask more below or get in touch to learn about the best option for you.


tefl or tesol