English as a Foreign Language or EFL shouldn’t be confused with ESL which is English as a second language. Children (and adults) learning a second language are often immigrants living in native English-speaking countries. Sometimes they speak already two languages, so technically English will be their third language.
Their learning environment is perfect, everywhere around them English is spoken and ready available, they are encouraged to learn English and they need to learn English. Most of them will become fluent at their own pace, because they are motivated.
This is not the case with some learners in other countries who are perhaps motivated, but don’t have a good learning environment. Despite efforts to stimulate learning at school and at home, they have to take tutorial classes after school, since they aren’t exposed to the English language that much.
Some learners will become fluent, but it isn’t hard to realize that these learners (by the time that they are adults) have studied huge amount of time to reach the same levels as their peers in English-speaking countries.
Lots of ESL learners in English-speaking countries seem to learn English much faster, but is this true? I’m not going to pull up statistics here to find out, but what is important to find out is which factors contribute to second language acquisition and which do not.
What is teaching English as a foreign language? What are the teaching methods that work? What is second language acquisition?
The EFL learner.
Teaching English to Students of Other Languages (TESOL) covers both ESL and EFL. English is the world language for communication and for business. It is big business all over the globe, and there is a constant need for good TESOL teachers who are able to teach kids of all levels and ages. Teaching English as a foreign language means that English is not their second language, but it is used for communication, business and careers.
There’s a huge gap between a learner from Bangkok whose parents speak English well, he is motivated because of his parents, plus he goes to a private school following an English program, and a kid who grows up in the same city, also encouraged to learn, but his parents can’t speak English, therefore isn’t motivated to learn.
Too often you will have these two types of learners with different proficiency levels in the same EP class. This makes it hard to teach the group as a whole, and often the class sizes are too big to monitor every single student.
Here comes techniques and skills into play. The learners need to be encouraged to learn therefore the first thing the foreign teacher need to be doing is to make them feel relaxed with you. The kids must feel no anxiety in the ESL/EFL classroom.
Learners who have low self-esteem are kids that don’t dare to speak in front of peers due to not having language skills. We will return to the EFL learner later and examine the Thai learner more closely, but first we need to understand how to teach and how learners acquire a second language.
English Language Teaching Methodology: Audio-Lingualism.
English language teaching and learning has developed over the last decades. ELT methodology is a huge topic, therefore I will only write some practical information so that you will understand why teachers teach in certain ways.
Teaching methods have evolved from learning the language structures of the English grammar to empowering the language learner and task-based learning.
Audio-Lingualism was the first revolutionary teaching method (after the grammar translation method) that was used to teach a second language. The objectives of the Audio-Lingual method were that the syllabuses had to focus on the language structures, and these structures were learned one after the other.
This old school of learning English (or basically any second language) implied that learners had to master the foundation first, which is the phonemic system (the sounds of English), after which they continued to learn the next level which is word building or the morphemic system.
The third level is to put these linguistic elements in order to make phrases and sentences which is simply the syntax of the language, combined with the set of rules or grammar.
Students were not taught to come up with other phrases to say things but had to model the language presented by the teacher. Errors and mistakes were constantly corrected by the teacher and repeating and drilling the structure or sentences was normal.
The teacher had total control over what the students were learning and introduced new words or structures only when he or she assessed the students successfully. You can imagine the stress.
The teacher corrected the students constantly to make it grammatically correct. The students had to sound like a native speaker as well. If the teacher wasn’t a native speaker or couldn’t speak close to native-like, a tape-recorder was used to model the language structures.
Why didn’t it work?
This is important information for any ESL/EFL teacher, so that you understand why teachers use certain methods or techniques these days, and can ask yourself if what you do in the classroom provide learning opportunities.
To understand what is teaching English as a foreign language, the history of ELT methodology need to be studied. After the Audio-Lingualism method many methods developed, which I’m not going to mention here, but to say what teaching and learning English as a second or foreign language today is.
So, why didn’t it work? Building language from phoneme to morpheme, to words, to phrases, to sentences? Research has shown that learners acquire language more natural and can learn much faster with whole language techniques. Today, teachers teach meaning and not only structure.
The disadvantages of Audio-Lingualism method:
- Learners only learn language structure, no meaning;
- The 4 language skills aren’t taught simultaneously, but separately;
- Drilling and memorizing isn’t organic or natural.
- It’s a teacher-centered method;
- Learners have no control over their own learning process or needs.
This should be understood, because we all use Audio-Lingual techniques in our EFL classes. If you would like to read about this method and other methods I recommend you to read Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching by Diane Larsen-Freeman and Marti Anderson (2011).
Second Language Acquisition Theory – Stephen Krashen.
I mentioned earlier that learners who lack language skills have low self-esteem in the EFL/ESL classroom. They are anxious to speak in front of peers, because they have a bad accent and say things wrong. Reducing stress levels is an important task for the foreign language teacher right in the beginning of the new school year, but also every time, every class, even when there’s an assessment!
Stephen Krashen developed the Second Language Acquisition Theory. In Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (Krashen 1982, p. 9) he pointed out that:
“The fourth hypothesis, the input hypothesis, may be the single most important concept in second language acquisition theory today. It is important because it attempts to answer the crucial theoretical question of how we acquire language. It is also important because it f may hold the answer to our everyday problems in second language instruction at all levels.”
(This book is highly recommended reading if you are passionate about teaching, you can find the link to the PDF below.)
The SLA theory consist of 5 hypotheses:
- The Acquisition-learning distinction.
- The Natural order hypothesis.
- The Monitor hypothesis.
- The Input hypothesis.
- The Affective filter hypothesis.
The Input hypothesis.
The Input hypothesis is important if you want to know how learners acquire English as a second language. To answer the question in the title of this article (what is teaching English as a second language?), then we should understand these hypotheses, or theory rather.
So, how do we acquire language? According to linguists like Stephen Krashen, there are 2 ways to learn a language. The first is just like children learning their mother tongue, in a natural way. They are ‘picking up’ the language automatically, which is called informal learning. Language acquisition is a subconscious process.
The second way is through formal learning, which means that acquiring competence in English (ESL or EFL) the learner need to ‘know’ the language (rules, grammar, etc.).
Stephen Krashen (1982, p.10) claims:
Some second language theorists have assumed that children acquire, while adults can only learn. The acquisition-learning hypothesis claims, however, that adults also acquire, that the ability to “pick-up” languages does not disappear at puberty. This does not mean that adults will always be able to achieve native-like levels in a second language. It does mean that adults can access the same natural “language acquisition device” that children use.
What it means is this, whenever there is comprehensible input, there will be learning, but you can’t move from one stage to the next without order. You can’t teach something they haven’t acquired yet, only when they know most of the language the teacher use in his or her lesson, then you can add a bit more.
It is written in this form: i + 1; i is according to Krashen the current competence and 1 is the next. We can understand only language and structure when it is a little beyond our current knowledge of the English language. It works only when the learner (and the teacher) is concentrated on the meaning of the language, not the form.
This theory has changed language teaching and learning as we knew it with new methods developed like task-based learning. The natural approach is developed by Stephen Krashen and Tracey D. Terrell. Using the natural approach in the ESL/EFL classroom will develop learner’s language skills rapidly.
In communicative methods like the natural approach learner’s attention is focused “on what is being said, not on how it is being said.” (Krashen 1983, p.19)
The Affective filter hypothesis.
It is true, research has shown, that learners of second languages have fear to speak in the ESL/EFL classroom, which is just natural behavior. We’d probably felt the same when we had French or German in high school and had to perform in front of our peers.
But the scary part is not only peers, it is you! Lots of students (of all ages) are scared to speak to the native English speaker, especially in the beginning of the new semester. They most likely respect the native speaker and see you as an expert of the English language. They haven’t developed their 4 language skills to a point where they have gained confidence in themselves yet.
Stephen Krashen hits the nail on his head by explaining that there are 3 categories or factors which has a huge effect on the learner’s ability to comprehend and process new language. The 3 factors of the affective filter hypothesis are:
- Anxiety – Fear to speak in class; it can be personal or classroom related.
- Low self-esteem or self-confidence – Learners with a good self-image and confidence in themselves tend to do much better in the EFL class.
- Low motivation – Learners with a higher motivation to participate and learn, usually do better as well.
The idea of a filter is brilliant, it filters out parts of the language input. The affective filter hypothesis proclaims that due to these 3 factors the input will not result in understanding of the target language and won’t be processed in the learner’s brain in a natural way.
The filtering happens because of anxiety, poor self-esteem and/or low motivation. Just like the kid in Bangkok whose learning environment isn’t supportive, which results in low motivation to learn, which has an effect on his participation in class. He will be nervous to speak in front of peers. and he won’t process the new language easily.
As a consequence, he won’t succeed in the English Program, and you as a teacher will have a hard time managing your lessons if you are not aware of the underlying reasons for his behavior.
In Stephen Krashen’s book, The Natural Approach (1989) language acquisition in the classroom should be communicative, language taught should be used in a communicative situation.
He (Krashen 1989, p.16) explains that: “communication ability is usually acquired quite rapidly; grammatical accuracy, on the other hand, increases only slowly, and after much experience using the language”.
He goes on by saying that it is a mistake “to assume that a conscious understanding of grammar is a prerequisite to acquiring communicative competence.”
Most of the EFL or ESL learners won’t be able to make it through a grammar course, according to Krashen, and they will fail to succeed.
What is Teaching English as a Foreign Language?
Here we come to the point of answering our question: what is teaching English as a Foreign Language?
We now know how learners acquire language and how to teach. Communicative language in the form of short dialogs with learning vocabulary in context, using lots of visuals to make sure learners understand the meaning.
We should not focus heavily on form, but rather empowering the language learner to communicate freely. Communication is conveying messages, if learners understand the meaning then we have succeeded. Learners can gain confidence in themselves when they are free to interact with each other without the teacher constantly correcting them.
It is a lot of fun to teach Thai kids for example, if you know how to teach and how they like to learn. EFL is an additional language for them, mainly used for communication, business and careers. English is not used as their primary language, therefore the English lessons should be fun, engaging and active.
A good TEFL course will teach you the techniques how to succeed and how to keep the learners motivated, interested and happy. The best TEFL course in Thailand teaches you everything in 4 weeks on-site in beautiful Chiang-Mai, which is better than learning online, because you are face-to-face with peers and instructors in real schools with real kids.
This TEFL school provides also 2 week courses and job placement with visa support in Thailand.
If you have any questions about teaching and learning English as described in this article or other blogs on liveTESOL.com, read Krashen’s work or leave a comment, and I’m happy to provide further information.
Krashen D. Stephen (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford Pergamon Press. Retrieved from:
First internet edition July 2009: file:///D:/SLA/Krashen principles_and_practice.PDF
Krashen D. Stephen & Tracey D. Terrell (1983) The Natural approach. Alemany Press. Retrieved from: