In the English Language Institute (ELI), we employ various terms denoting an individual’s language status, and in this post, we will define each one and explain why the ELI has opted to (not) use them.

ESL — English as a Second Language. ‘ESL’ is probably the most widely known term, and that is why the ELI takes advantage of this in terms of communications and outreach. However, the term has lost favor among the language pedagogy community. Why? Because sometimes it is not clear what an individual’s ‘first’ language is (perhaps they grew up speaking one language at home, and a different language at school). And because oftentimes people can speak more than two languages.

EAL — English as an Additional Language. The shortcomings of ‘ESL’ directly translate to the advantages for ‘EAL’ — it is a more inclusive term and applies to a wider range of individuals’ contexts. However, it is not as well known as ‘ESL.’ That is why some of our offerings are labeled as being ‘ESL/EAL.’

A Case Study
As mentioned above, some individuals may not have an easily identifiable ‘first’ language. For example, take a person who starts speaking Spanish at home and then starts attending school in English. English could take over as the individual’s ‘dominant‘ language, even though Spanish was acquired ‘first.’ Let’s say this person continues to communicate at home in Spanish — you could say Spanish is now their ‘home‘ language. Because they’re not getting schooled in Spanish, they might decide to study Spanish formally when they are older. In this case, they would be a ‘heritage language learner‘ of Spanish. Lastly, even though English has become the individual’s dominant language, they might still experience some transfer or interference from Spanish — in this case, the individual could benefit from EAL offerings.

The bottom line is, the ELI recognizes that some of our students might actually be dominant in English. That’s why we think ‘EAL’ covers the most ground as the preferred term.

So, is EAL an adjective?
We do utilize ‘EAL’ as an adjective to describe our offerings, but we avoid using it as an adjective to describe individuals, as most students probably don’t identify as an ‘EAL student.’ But we do utilize the phrases, ‘Students with EAL needs,’ or ‘Students for whom English is an additional language.’

What about ‘native’ and ‘non-native’?
Similarly to ‘ESL,’ we recognize that these terms are very familiar to most people, and therefore we wouldn’t necessarily correct someone for using them. However, given the increasingly complex backgrounds of our students, we don’t feel it is constructive for the ELI to label our students as ‘non-native.’ And, we don’t think it’s constructive for our students to aim to achieve ‘nativeness,’ either. We believe a much more reasonable and attainable goal is to be intelligible, comprehensible, coherent, cohesive, or fluent.

Do you have any other questions? Leave us a comment!