I get asked this a lot, after telling people that I’m a linguist. I’m pretty sure anyone in the language line of work has gotten some variation at some point, whether “You must know a lot of other languages!” or “If you teach a language, you must be really good at learning languages!”
Brian Powers, of Languages Around the Globe, and Erik Zidowecki of Parleremo wrote a piece called A Linguist, a Polyglot, and a Translator Walk Into a Bar… to shed some light on common language-related jobs and titles. They go through Translators, Interpreters, Linguists, Multilinguals, Polyglots, and Hyperpolyglots, so I won’t duplicate their efforts here. Distinctly lacking from their discussion, however, were language education titles! The next time you get a blank look about your work, direct the kind soul to this post, and let’s educate the world about language education.
English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher
The majority of our audience probably falls into this category. ESL teachers or programs exist to work with students who speak a language other than English at home. ESL programs that are found in PreK-12 schools are usually referred to as English Language Development (ELD) programs, but ESL can also be found in universities and adult education programs.
English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Teacher
When English is instructed abroad, in a country where English is not the majority language, it’s EFL. It may seem like a negligible difference, but English teachers abroad are equivalent to Spanish or French teachers in the US, with about the same level of influence. Even though English may be politically desirable in that country, English is sometimes remote and irrelevant to students in a way that it would never be to English learners in countries where English dominates. It’s a tough job to teach English abroad, (trust me, we know!) but it’s completely awesome.
This is the red herring of the bunch. English teachers (or English Language Arts teachers) teach conventions of English to native English-speaking students (They instruct nonnative students too, but not on the functionality of written and spoken English, as an ESL teacher would). English teachers teach the five paragraph essay, thesis sentences, the difference between similes and metaphors, and they require the reading and analysis of literature, and they might make you give speeches or perform scenes from Hamlet, and they delve into the rich and wonderful complexities of (mainly) printed English.
Foreign Language Teacher
These are the Spanish, French, Mandarin, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian teachers. While their instruction may run parallel to the instruction of ESL teachers in terms of mechanics, and they may face parallel pressures to churn out bilingual students in this global age, there are a few differences. They carry the burden of educating sometimes-ignorant youth (and often, parents) on whole cultures, identities, traditions, literatures, cuisines, musical traditions and, last but not least, languages. Despite this overwhelming task, foreign languages are often viewed as optional luxuries in English-speaking countries, so foreign language teachers aren’t always afforded the respect or influence they ought.
As an aside, a Foreign Language Teacher may also tandem teach in a bilingual program (see below), alongside an ESL teacher.
This is an umbrella term for any educational program that permits or encourages the instruction of English learners (ELs) via the native language. Programs may be Transitional or Developmental Bilingual (which are for ELs only), or any of the dual immersion variations (see below).
Dual Language (or Dual Immersion or Bilingual Immersion, or Two-Way Immersion)
While there’s a variety of titles for these programs, their common thread is instruction in two languages, to two native-speaking groups of students. For example, a common setup is English and Spanish instruction for native English AND native Spanish students. Program titles vary because there are not always equal numbers in each student group, and programs can follow different models (either 50/50 instructional time between languages, or 90/10, with the minority, or foreign, language receiving greater priority in Kindergarten, and gradually equaling out by upper elementary). Excitingly, dual language programs are gaining traction, and a leading expert and a colleague of mine, Julie Sugarman, estimates that there are now over 1000 programs in the US. For more information on dual language programs, click here.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful and enlightening! Are there any other terms you’d like to have clarified?