The Definitive Guide to TEFL

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Frequently Asked Questions about Teaching English as a Foreign Language

What does TEFL mean?
TEFL simply stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. The term has no official significance.

What's with all this EFL, ESL, TEFL, TESL, TESOL, ELT etc?
Confusingly, the English language teaching world has a bewildering array of abbreviations and acronyms, many of which mean the same thing, and most of which have no official significance.

Are there any differences in the above terms?
Theoretically, EFL is for non-native speakers learning English in a non-English-speaking environment (typically learners in their own countries). ESL is for non-native speakers learning English in an English-speaking environment (typically people who have emigrated to an English-speaking country). There are some theoretical differences in the way that English is taught and acquired in these different situations, though with the growth of technology and communication many of these differences are becoming increasingly academic. In practice, many teachers make little distinction between the two terms, and some are not even aware of the distinction. It might be said that by and large British teachers, for example, instinctively use the term EFL, while American teachers instinctively use the term ESL. The term EAL seems to be an attempt at political correctness, clumsily avoiding the nasty inference of "foreign" while accepting that many learners may well be on their third, fourth or fifth language.

Is it necessary to speak a foreign language?
In general, today's communicative approach to teaching English requires that the teacher speak only in English. Speaking a foreign language is therefore of no particular value. Indeed, if you are teaching a class of students who have ten different mother tongues, as is not impossible, even your fluency in say three foreign languages would have little relevance. The ability, therefore, to speak a foreign language is not a requirement for teaching English. Having said that, some experience of learning and speaking a foreign language will help you understand language in general and how we learn it, as well as help you learn more about English—especially English grammar—itself. If you are teaching in a foreign country, some knowledge of that country's language and culture can also make your life easier and enrich your experience.

Are there any age limits for TEFL?
Yes and no. This depends very much on the country, the culture, the school, the type of students the school may have, the principal's dogmas, and legal requirements. It can work both ways. Some schools actually prefer more mature teachers, especially if their clientele are mainly business people. Others consider—rightly or wrongly—that younger teachers are more "dynamic". Some countries are so desperate for teachers that age is irrelevant. EFL teachers can be any age from 18 to 80, though it has to be said that it is more difficult to find employment under 21 and over 50. Also, some countries have compulsory retirement ages of around 60 or 65. But in general, don't let the question of age put you off. With a good TEFL certificate, you will find employment somewhere.

What if English is not my mother tongue?
If you have a good TEFL certificate, not being a native speaker should not be a problem. One of the entrance requirements for any serious TEFL course is the ability to speak (and write) English fluently. Thus anyone—native- or non-native speaker—with a good TEFL certificate will be on a level footing. Non-native speakers who have not taken a serious TEFL course can still find employment, but may encounter resistance and will certainly need to demonstrate a very high degree of fluency.

Can I make a real career out of TEFL?
Yes, if you want to. There are many opportunities for long-term or permanent positions, or for advancement to Director of Studies or administrative positions. Other possibilities are teacher training and materials writing. But a real career in TEFL almost always requires at least a heavy-weight TEFL certificate (for example Cambridge ELT or Trinity) and for more senior positions a TEFL diploma or degree or similar.