ESL and EFL: Politics and Society


Way back in the day, anyone who didn’t speak English and wanted/needed to, learnt “English” – then in the 60s and 70s, along came widespread ESL (for non-English speaking residents of English-speaking countries), EFL (English learning everywhere else) and EF/SL teacher training: TEFL and TESL. ES/FL, however, also carry socio-cultural-political overtones, language being our most important cultural asset. Language teaching-learning can never be neutral. Misuse and misunderstanding meant that ES/FL attracted meanings not intended by those who coined them.

World Domination?

Adequate ES/FL training was a long time coming, seeing English was global by World War 1. British Empire and US expansion, from 13 colonies across the States and as far as the Philippines, ensured this. After WW1 German colonies in Africa, the Pacific and the Americas were taken over by the Allies, who also shared Middle-East and other protectorates. A worldwide network on which the sun did not set.

English gained the bulk of its spread through colonisation. Ex-colonies kept English as their language of higher education, international contacts, and government and law. Economic projects such as the Marshall Plan ensured significant input from English speakers over world economic development – except behind the Iron Curtain.

ES/FL training developed in the post-colonial 60s and 70s, along with a desire for social good, the freedom of peoples, business and Capitalism, and other currents still creating waves in ES/FL today. English becoming the World Language was seen by many as a Good Thing, facilitating communication and World Peace (though some of the bitterest wars have been between people who speak the same language). Praiseworthy ideals perhaps, but also selfish – everyone else has to put themselves out, not us English speakers.

Realisation set in that colonisation is a social, linguistic and economic disaster for the colonised, at best paternalistic, at worst genocidal. For some in the world English represents oppression and colonial domination, be this empire, economic or cultural; for many others, freedom and self-fulfilment.

ES/FL are potential political minefields.

Misuse of Terms

ESL is often used to cover both ESL and EFL, particularly in the US. Throughout the 60s-70s, English seemed destined to become the second language for all non-English speakers in the world. It appeared to be taught – and spoken – “everywhere”; presumably, English could no longer be considered “foreign” (not to mention that “foreign” can be discriminatory).

However, a realisation that “ESL” is simplistic and inaccurate took hold from the 1980s on. English is third, fourth or more for many learners. In many countries another international language dominates, such as French or Portuguese. For most Indonesians, one of 700-odd languages is first, with Indonesian (Malay) being second. For around 30% of the population of China, Mandarin is second, and English is used/learnt by a mere one percent. In India, English is the main language of higher education, and the language of law; however, there are only around 230,000 native speakers, 18% fluent speakers, and around 75% who do not speak English (2005 figures). ‘English is “everywhere” has never been true.

Improving Terms

The need to reassess terminology grew with awareness of socio-political aspects of language learning and use. To replace TEFL and TESL, TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and ELT (English Language Teaching, mainly UK) appeared, with ESOL and EAL (English as an Additional Language) covering ES/FL. EAL highlights English as an addition to the user’s linguistic repertoire, particularly for school-aged children in the UK, while in the States, ELL, English Language Learning/Learners (alt. EL) is roughly equivalent. English learners can and do have (an)other language(s) that can be as important to them as English, and often more important.

Such terms refer to learners and those who already know enough English for their purposes. NNES – Non-Native English Speakers – covers users for whom English is not their first language. We who speak English as our first language are NES, Native English Speakers.

For reference to English for international communication between either NNES or NNES/NES groups, ELF, English as a Lingua Franca, came on the scene, along with Global English, EIL (English as an International Language), International English and World English/Englishes.

English as a Lingua Franca

By the 60s-70s, the numbers of people learning English ware fast outnumbering native English speakers. Projections suggested that English could conquer the world. But, it was also important NOT to confuse English with domination, but as a neutral tool for communication. English, like all international languages, adapts according to the resources of the user for communication purposes; communicating has more importance than perfection in the language. Language “purism” can not and must not be enforced. A Lingua Franca is a neutral language used for communication between different language groups. In theory belonging to no single group, in practice, the lingua franca is based on the language of the economically and/or culturally dominant group, English speakers in the case of ELF.

International business and diplomacy means being multi-lingual. A language of diplomacy or business like French or English is useful, but, as Nelson Mandela said, “if you speak to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” A company working in most of Latin America must use Spanish and Portuguese, not English, just as any company selling in Australia must use English. French and Spanish in particular are not only holding their place in the world, but also actively expanding; e.g. Chinese business expansion in South America and Africa has shown the Chinese their usefulness.

English fills an important international role. ES/FL will always need lots of trained professionals and materials; however, we have to be clear what this means. English has most international importance in those areas where the language itself is not important, but where the field is independent of language, such as engineering, science, international academia, business and the like. English teaching specialises in areas such as General English, EBP, EAP, ESP and proficiency examinations such as TOEFL and IELTS, and residency/citizenship in English speaking countries. These terms and more will be discussed in the next article of this series, “ESL/EFL acronyms and what they mean”.

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