TESOL in the United States Versus TEFL Abroad

by Caroline Hazelton

TESOL in the United States

I’m an English as a Second Language teacher (not to be confused with an English as a Foreign Language teacher) and I have chosen to remain stateside in America. When I first announced the intentions of my career, I was completing an internship in Guatemala. My teammate replied “Why stay in the States? You’ll lose the adventure.” For those of you considering a career in ESL, here’s why I choose to teach English as a Second Language in the States versus teaching English as a Foreign Language abroad.

What’s the Difference?

First, let’s take a look at the difference between English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). It’s all about (as a real estate agent might say), “Location, location, location!” The difference lies in what the majority of a country speaks. If I’m in an English-speaking country teaching English, I’m teaching ESL. However, if I’m in a non-English speaking country as an English instructor, I’m teaching EFL. Both have distinctly different purposes. For example, one learns English to live and survive while the other learns it for vacations abroad/communicating with foreigners. Both are used interchangeably at times but are vastly different in purpose.

But now, let’s get to the answer of what my teammate asked me while we were in Guatemala: “Why?”

Why stay in America to teach English?

English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

Here’s my story. Here’s my “because” to that teammate’s (and possibly your) “Why?” These reasons are not for everyone, but rather that of my own.

I find working with immigrants to be of great purpose that I can fulfill.

Nine years ago I taught my first ESL class to a group of Central American immigrant women at an inner-city mission in Texas. After an entire summer of using my gifts of language and teaching to meet their needs, I found a career that I forever wanted to be part of because there was a purpose that I could fulfill. I meet people with stories of horrors beyond our privileged American first-world-problems-self can dream of, but they have found refuge in our homeland. I watch their English grow, and opportunities open for them. Plus, I get to teach about my home. I get to be the “know-it-all guide” of my beloved homeland – and it’s rewarding. I never stop feeling blessed whenever I’m teaching ESL students because I can give them part of what they need.

The flexible hour possibilities of ESL leave time for a family or a second job.

TESOL in the United States students

In addition to being a language buff, I’m a wife to a successful scientist and mother to two young children. At this moment, I can’t work a full-time job due to my family responsibilities. ESL classes are held in the evenings for students employed during the day, so I can stay home with my children but still do what I love. ESL classes are also held in the mornings or afternoons for housewives or international students. I can always pick up more hours as my children get older. Additionally, the part-time commitment to ESL allowed me to work a “main job” as a Spanish instructor before my second daughter was born. I look at my life teaching ESL part-time while still having ample time at home with my 1- and 3-year-olds plus supporting my husband and his career and I think, “Man, I’ve got it made in ESL!”

You experience the world without the unknown.

English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

I’ve always had a deep love for foreign cultures, so it shocked me when my months overseas during undergrad left me lonely and miserable. In personal experience, I’m more of a short-term tourist than a long-term visitor abroad. Yet I cannot stop learning about cultures beyond my own. That’s why I love ESL – you experience the world while enjoying the familiarity of your own nation. I am able to enjoy other countries simply by teaching a class! Nonetheless, there’s always room to hop on a plane (we are headed out to Polynesia in April for my husband’s conference!) should I want. 

Things to Point Out

I wanted to wrap up this post by a few pointers:

  1. I did not address the growing popularity of English as a Foreign Language online learning platforms as a flexible option. In fact, I teach on one right now.
  2. Remember that EFL and ESL still follow the rules laid out for second language acquisition. The difference is the curriculum (suited for different audiences and needs) and motivation (ESL students have more at stake than EFL students).
  3. Although I wrote about teaching immigrants, there is no “one size fits all” student in ESL. You see immigrants, visiting scholars, international students, visiting tourists, refugees (different political classification than immigrants), etc.

Guys, don’t worry about losing the adventures of teaching English abroad – in ESL the world comes to you. ESL is for us language nerds who need to be doing humanitarian work or for that person who loves other cultures but needs to stay in their home country. And with good reason – the current political climate of our country loves to build walls. Go rogue. Don’t build walls, but tear them down in ESL.

Students in Guatemala