Definition of English as a Second Language (ESL)

English as a Second Language Class
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English as a Second Language (ESL or TESL) is a traditional term for the use or study of the English language by non-native speakers in an English-speaking environment (it is also known as English for speakers of other languages.) That environment may be a country in which English is the mother tongue (e.g., Australia, the U.S.) or one in which English has an established role (e.g., India, Nigeria). Also known as English for speakers of other languages.

English as a Second Language also refers to specialized approaches to language teaching designed for those whose primary language is not English.

English as a Second Language corresponds roughly to the Outer Circle described by linguist Braj Kachru in "Standards, Codification and Sociolinguistic Realism: The English Language in the Outer Circle" (1985).


  • "Basically, we can divide up countries according to whether they have English as a native language, English as a second language, or English as a foreign language. The first category is self-explanatory. The difference between English as a foreign language and English as a second language is that in the latter instance only, English has actual assigned communicative status within the country. All told, there is a total of 75 territories where English has a special place in society. [Braj] Kachru has divided the English-speaking countries of the world into three broad types, which he symbolizes by placing them in three concentric rings:
  • The inner circle: these countries are the traditional bases of English, where it is the primary language, that is Great Britain and Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
  • The outer or extended circle: these countries represent the earlier spread of English in non-native contexts, where the language is part of the country's leading institutions, where it plays a second-language role in a multilingual society. e.g. Singapore, India, Malawi, and 50 other territories.
  • The expanding circle: this includes countries that represent the importance of English as an international language though they have no history of colonization and English has no special administrative status in these countries, e.g. China, Japan, Poland and a growing number of other states. This is English as a foreign language.
    It is clear that the expanding circle is the one that is most sensitive to the global status of English. It is here that English is used primarily as an international language, especially in the business, scientific, legal, political and academic communities."
  • "The terms (T)EFL, (T)ESL and TESOL ['Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages'] emerged after the Second World War, and in Britain no distinction was seriously made between ESL and EFL, both being subsumed under ELT ('English Language Teaching'), until well into the 1960s. As regards ESL in particular, the term has been applied to two types of teaching that overlap but are essentially distinct: ESL in the home country of the learner (mainly a UK concept and concern) and ESL for immigrants to ENL countries (mainly a US concept and concern)."
  • "The term 'English as Second Language' (ESL) has traditionally referred to students who come to school speaking languages other than English at home. The term in many cases is incorrect, because some who come to school have English as their third, fourth, fifth, and so on, language. Some individuals and groups have opted for the term 'Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages" (TESOL) to represent better the underlying language realities. In some jurisdictions, the term 'English as an Additional Language' (EAL) is used. The term 'English Language Learner' (ELL) has gained acceptance, primarily in the United States. The difficulty with the term 'ELL' is that in most classrooms, everyone, regardless of their linguistic backgrounds, is learning English."


  • Fennell, Barbara A. A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach. Blackwell, 2001.
  • McArthur, Tom. The Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Gunderson, Lee. ESL (ELL) Literacy Instruction: A Guidebook to Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2009.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of English as a Second Language (ESL)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition of English as a Second Language (ESL). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of English as a Second Language (ESL)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2023).