English as a Foreign Language (EFL)


Indian School, Rajasthan, India

Tim Graham / Getty Images

English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is the term used to describe the study of English by non-native speakers in countries where English is not the dominant language. This is not to be confused with English as a Second Language—also called English as an Additional Language—which is the practice of learning English in a predominantly English-speaking country.

How EFL Relates to the Expanding Circle Theory

English as a Foreign Language loosely corresponds with the Expanding Circle theory of language described by linguist Braj Kachru in "Standards, Codification and Sociolinguistic Realism: The English Language in the Outer Circle."

According to this theory, there are three concentric circles of World English that can be used to categorize places where English is studied and spoken and map English diffusion. These are the inner, outer, and expanding circles. Native English speakers are in the inner circle, English-speaking countries that have historically adopted English as a second language or lingua franca are in the outer circle, and countries in which English is used some but is not widely spoken are in the expanding circle.

The circles represent the different tiers of World Englishes. According to this theory, English is a native language in the inner circle (ENL), a second language in the outer circle (ESL), and a foreign language in the expanding circle (EFL). As English spreads globally, more countries are added to the circles.

Differences Between ESL and EFL

ESL and EFL are not the same in the context of World Englishes and the Expanding Circle, but they are often considered equivalent otherwise. And even when considered separate, classifying a country or region as ESL- or EFL-speaking is difficult, as Charles Barber explains briefly in the following excerpt.

"The distinction between second language and foreign language is not ... a sharp one, and there are cases, like Indonesia, where classification is disputable. Moreover, there is a considerable amount of variation in the roles played by second languages, for example in education, in the fields of discourse used, and in the giving of prestige or power. In India, the medium of instruction in schools was changed from English to the regional languages after Independence, and subsequently there has been a gradual process of Indianization of the universities, which at one time were all English-medium," (Barber 2000).

English in Indonesia

The case of English in Indonesia is a unique one because experts can't quite agree on whether English should be considered a foreign language or a second language in this Asian country. The reason why has to do with how English came to be spoken and how it is primarily used. The Handbook of World Englishes addresses the dispute: "Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, used to emphasize the teaching of Dutch...

The movement towards English as a foreign language began at independence, and English is now the main foreign language being learned in Indonesia. English is taught for eight or nine years from primary school (from Grade 4 or 5) through high school (Renandya, 2000). The main objective is to provide reading skills to enable Indonesians to read science-related materials in English," (Bautista and Gonzalez 2006).

English as a Medium of Instruction

The way that English is taught in a given country plays a key role in determining what variety of English is spoken there. For example, if the majority of students have spoken English since birth and you teach exclusively in English, you know that you are dealing with an ENL country. Ultimately, writer Christopher Fernandez argues, English is only considered a medium of instruction in education and government in ESL or ENL contexts, not EFL.

"Although ESL (English as Second Language) and EFL (English as Foreign Language) are often used interchangeably, there are unique differences between the two. ... ESL countries are nations where the medium of instruction in education and government is in English, although English may not be the native language.

On the other hand, EFL countries do not use English as a medium of instruction but English is taught in schools. Malaysia was once considered an ESL country but now leans more towards EFL. The methods and approaches of teaching English as a second language and foreign language do differ greatly," (Fernandez 2012).

ESL and EFL Teaching

So how do the methods of teaching English as a second language and as a foreign language differ? English as a second language is learned in environments where English is already regularly spoken; English as a foreign language is learned in environments where English is not spoken. Lee Gunderson et al. explain: "ESL and EFL instructional approaches differ in significant ways. ESL is based on the premise that English is the language of the community and the school and that students have access to English models.

EFL is usually learned in environments where the language of the community and the school is not English. EFL teachers have the difficult task of finding access to and providing English models for their students. ... As the number of ESL students has increased in schools across North America, more classrooms and schools have become more like EFL than ESL environments," (Gunderson et al. 2009).


  • Barber, Charles. The English Language: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Bautista, Maria Lourdes S., and Andrew B. Gonzalez. "Southeast Asian Englishes." The Handbook of World Englishes. Blackwell, 2006.
  • Fernandez, Christopher. "Of English Teachers Then and Now." The Star, 11 Nov. 2012.
  • Gunderson, Lee, et al. ESL (ELL) Literacy Instruction: A Guidebook to Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2009.
  • Kachru, Braj. "Standards, Codification and Sociolinguistic Realism: The English Language in the Outer Circle." English in the World. Cambridge University Press, 1985.