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What We Use in China


Section I: Teaching English in China continued—China TEFL Primer

English Language Teaching Terminology

Prospective foreign teachers who are new to the field will find the rather large array of acronyms that are used to be quite confusing.

1918 ESL class with Armenian women immigrants
An ESL class for Armenian immigrants in NYC, 1918

The field and its terms are broadly divided, from the students' vantage point, into either English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL) based on whether the target students will be using the language within or outside an English-speaking country, respectively. Thus recent Chinese immigrants who are studying English in New York City are ESL students, while their counterparts in China are EFL students. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, and New Zealand, the term ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) is used in lieu of ESL, in response to the criticism that English may not necessarily be the non-native speaker's second language. To further complicate matters, the British will typically use the term EAL (English as an additional language) in place of ESOL when referring to primary and secondary school education (Basic Skills Agency, 2006).

In the American education system, the term TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) is a broad category used to encompass both TEFL and TESL (teaching English as a foreign and second language, respectively), while the British typically use ELT (English language teaching) in place of TESOL. Finally, the terms L1 and L2 are commonly used in the literature to denote first and second language acquisition, respectively.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is credited with having once said "England and America are two countries divided by a common language," and this is particularly true in regard to teaching English as a foreign language in China. While the government of mainland China has adopted the use of American English for its official translations, as well as for the English versions of its national newspapers, i.e., People's Daily and China Daily, Hong Kong and Macau appear to have adopted the use of British English. In terms of EFL curricula across mainland China, there appears to be a mixture of both American and British teaching materials that are used, based on the arbitrary preferences of the individuals making the decisions.

Related, there doesn't appear to be a clear preference for anyone particular English language dialect in China, unless the school (typically a private school) is heavily invested in promoting a specific type of regional preparatory exam, e.g., preparing students for taking standardized English tests that are used predominantly in either North America or English, Australia, and New Zealand. Thus a private school promoting itself as an "expert" in preparing students for the Cambridge IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam will probably prefer a teacher with a British dialect, while one promoting itself as a "specialist" in SAT (scholastic aptitude test; the American national college admission test) or TOEFL (testing of English as a foreign language) exam preparation will probably seek out a North American teacher.

The next unit discusses some of the common linguistic challenges that Chinese EFL students typically face when learning the English language.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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