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EFL/ESL Distinction Argued on JALTTALK

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ESL and EFL: Same or Different?
Raucous Debate on JALTTALK Listserv

The Japanese Association of Language Teachers (JALT) held their annual conference in Shizuoka, Japan, November 21-24, 2004. A number of JALT members, mostly expatriat Americans, communicate informally with each other via a listserv called JALTTALK, though not affiliated officially with the JALT organization. The following is a description of a series of exchanges which took place over the Thanksgiving holidays on JALTTALK, in response to a comment made at one of the JALT forums in Shizuoka, regarding the distinction (or lack of) between ESL and EFL.

Prof Neil Anderson sparked a mini-discussion at the International Forum last weekend with his suggestion that we begin to move away from the conceptual dichotomy of ESL vs EFL.

Replies from teachers on JALTTALK were mostly adamantly opposed to this "radical" idea from the former TESOL president (2000-2001).

I think that it is a very bad idea. The reason is that the basic needs of ESL and EFL students are different, at least from the point of view of the teacher and how best to use the available class time and what to assign as home work. There are, of course, individual cases where this may not be true, but in general it holds. ESL classes are conducted in a place where English is spoken by the general public, so during none class hours students can interact directly with English speakers. EFL classes are conducted in a place where English is not used by the general public, so interaction with English speakers is much more problematic. There is also the old question of motivation. ESL students are generally trying to conduct their daily lives in English; EFL students are generally learning English for some more future use.

Some JALTTALKers were of the opinion that Neil Anderson could only be entertaining this idea of dismissing the differences between ESL and EFL because he was "stateside," and not involved in teaching learners who have limited need for and even more limited interest in English, as is the case with Japanese students by and large, according to these teachers.

I took an interest in these exchanges and put forth a few ideas of my own regarding this "controversial topic."

I am certain that the comments here in favor of keeping the ESL/EFL distinction are being made by individuals who do their darndest to create an atmosphere in their classrooms and beyond as possible in which students suspend disbelief if only for a few minutes and forget that they are speaking a "foreign language" (English). Scenarios are very powerful in this way, and we had fun with them at several places I worked there. I remember the weekend scenario, "Trip to Mars," at Chubu University's nice cabin up in the mountains, with a group of Japanese businessmen. I think that if you keep in mind moments and experiences like that, you may begin to see why some, stateside and abroad, feel that ESL and EFL teachers are pushing in the same direction, their goals are more similar than different and the distinction is, largely, one of convenience, primarily the teacher's convenience in not shooting as high, not expecting as much. The low expectations happen in English-speaking environments as well as in environments where other languages hold sway.

I won't reprint here all of the diatribes and off-color language that came forth in response to my comments on JALTTALK. The listserv members are a bright, lively bunch and their exchanges can be very colorful. As the saying goes, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

One very reasonable response, however, was the following:

Two distinctions between EFL and ESL were brought into sharp focus when I visited The ESL SIG at a TESOL conference a few years ago. ESL teachers were discussing the need to measure gains in language fluency after a long period of absence. That "need" had never occured to me. It was always, "How far back do we have to go at the start of this term?"

The second was the convenience and utility of using local realia. The best I could come up with was reading the English off beer vending machines and t-shirts for meaning. Sure, I brought back restaurant menus and shopping catalogs whenever I got the chance, but the idea that students were emersed in meaningful target language materials continuously in their daily lives, was totally foreign to my teaching experience in Japan.

And another JALTTALK listserv member wondered if the ESL/EFL dichotomy applies as well to Internet environments.

But you do suggest a more daunting question, how do you consider the cyber world presentation of self as a language acquisitionist in light of the ESL or EFL dichotomy? When the world is virtual and the actual fades, does the distinction still hold up?

There were a number of very coherent, well-reasoned responses to the challenge I had laid down in my JALTTALK comments. One individual recounted the experience he had had with an idealistic American visiting language instructor (VLI) who thought he could use ESL techniques in the Japanese university setting.

Well, the VLI in question tried to start his students out with challenging 'foundational works' (e.g., Wordsworth, Keats, etc.) which would supposedly both peak their interest and stimulate further study on their own. Imagine the VLI's surprise when none of the students brought dictionaries--let alone the textbooks--to class. Worse, in the class that I actually observed, students were overtly ignoring his activities and lectures, instead talking on their phones, playing video games, planning for weekend trips, etc. Completely ignorant about the culture (after all, Japanese students "don't do this"), unable to communicate with his students in their language, and rebuffed in his attempts to challenge his students and stimulate further learning, the VLI's class was a complete disaster, and the VLI in question had a nervous breakdown (my last memory of the guy was when he--a 55-year old individual--came crying to my office, wanting to be "sent home").

Another listserv member, however, suggested that there might be something to the idea of examining the distinction between ESL and EFL, and also commented on the particular constraints within which foreign teachers of English must function in the Japanese education system. Taking on the part of devil's advocate, I'd say he has a point if he means that we need to begin to build on the relatively clear distinction we have between ESL and EFL and stop letting the notion that Japan is EFL-land so we have to recast another book for false beginners (move away in the sense of upward and onward), but if he's saying that the distinction doesn't exist, well, sorry, that doesn't pass the laugh test.

...Of course, Robb is correct that there are a lot of problems here in Japan, but he fails to note that a lot of the problems arise because native speakers are kept from participating fully. How many people on this list have been told that foreigners (i.e. native speakers) can't teach grammar? How many people on this list have been told, when asking about what sort of goals are set for a class, to 'do what you like'? How many people on the list have proposed something and been told 'oh, the students can't do that, that's too difficult'. Hey, this is a co-dependent relationship, so maybe a 12 step program (English Teachers Anonymous?) is needed. And lest I be accused of simply accepting mediocrity, I think it is important to realize that seeing 30 students 90 minutes a week for 13 weeks (depending on how holidays fall) ain't a whole lot of contact time, so you have to be realistic in setting your goals. I also have to be realistic and realise that teaching students, especially i! n a format where they are getting passed around to several teachers with no unified curriculum goals is a problem and also have to realise that I can't change the huge majority of what ails the system, so I can only try and make the part that I do go as well as it can.

The same individual explained why he likes teaching EFL more than teaching ESL, and in the process managed to present some serious reservations about dissolving the distinction between the two.

I don't know if EFL is more difficult that ESL (I've taught both), but I do find EFL more enjoyable. My reasons for this are as follows:
  • because you are dealing with students who all have the same native language, grammatical explanations can be focussed on particular problems with much greater accuracy (at least until all the Chinese ryu gakusei start filling up the unis here)
  • you can leverage the common culture for lessons that really catch students' attention
  • you can anticipate problems
  • you don't have to be studiously neutral in your political stances because you know what the general consensus is and you can avoid pitfalls (I generally avoid taking political stances in class as a rule, but I sometimes intervene to present a view that I hope will widen the student's horizons. In an ESL class, because you don't know what attitudes are out there, you can't do that unless you are ready to proselytize your view)
  • everything you learn (including what karaoke songs are popular, which comic books are being read, what things are in fashion) can go back into class.

  • Sophia University professor Francis Britto, Ph.D., who had been on the forum panel, "Current Developments in International English Language Education," where Neil Anderson made his bold suggestion about ESL/EFL gave a few more details regarding the context of those comments.

    First, this "forum debate," I believe, was the brainchild of David McMurray...At any rate, David's idea was to offer some exciting and provocative topics for the panelists and participants to engage in....So, after the introduction of different regional associations was over, Neil was asked to broach a topic. And he spoke very briefly, perhaps just a few sentences, simply stating that the EFL/ESL distinction may be useless or irrelevant....As may be expected, immediately several panelists and participants reacted excitedly, some defending his position, but perhaps many questioning his position....Just before we were ready to get into the next topic, I asked Neil a couple of questions: What are your reasons for your position? After all the EFL/ESL distinction was introduced for what many considered valid reasons, related to pedagogical goals, student types, material development, etc., so how can you say the distinction is unnecessary? Are you saying that all EFL regions are the same as ESL regions? Or EFL students are the same as ESL ones?

    Then Neil replied to my questions, basically making three observations in support of his position:

    (1) The teaching methodology in both situations is becoming identical: teachers in both situations using same books, same/overlapping methods, etc.

    (2) ESL situations are becoming more like EFL situations with a vast number of immigrants from different countries living in near linguistic isolation.

    (3) EFL situations are increasingly becoming like ESL situations, as can be judged, for example in Japan, by the increased use of English in the mass media and elsewhere.

    But JALTTALK listserv members rejected these arguments attributed to Neil Anderson, particularly point number three, regarding increased use of English in the mass media and elsewhere in Japan. One member gave the following example of how true ESL-type English ability disqualified his wife for an English-teaching position in a Japanese "cram school," or "juku," the ultimate EFL context.

    My wife, a former juku instructor, likes to tell the story about how she quit her job to study abroad for a year in the hopes that added English fluency would make her even more desirable to employers. Upon her return, however, she found that, despite being comparatively fluent now in English, local companies wouldn't consider her at all (because she was a woman over 30). Frustrated (and a bit disillusioned), she tried to get back into teaching at a juku. After almost a year of searching, she was finally hired back at the juku she had originally worked at...to teach math. As the head of the juku supposedly explained to her at the time (she swears this is not made up), "No one would understand your English now; your accent and way of speaking are too strange."

    The person who had originally referenced Neil Anderson's provocative comments from the JALT Conference, and who had in the meantime shared all the discussion threads from our JALTTALK exchanges on this topic, brought back to the group this response from Dr. Anderson:

    I'm not surprised at the response. The initial response from teachers is that the distinction should remain, but as soon as I begin to explore with them specifically how teaching is different in the two traditional contexts and then the line blurs and the teachers themselves begin to suggest that perhaps their response was too hasty and that the distinction should be reconsidered. THANKS for sending this input to me.

    Replies came fast but a little less furious on the JALTTALK listserv. One representative comment:

    To me the distinction is very clear. ESL has a universal characteristic that EFL just does not contain. As Charles Adamson pointed out, you are confined by your goals. As Steve van Dresser pointed out, you are confined by the environment in which you exist. Implementation assignments (maybe the strongest part of the teaching) are very different between the two. Yes, the teacher may employ the same tactics and exercises, but the basis behind them and in front of them are very different.

    And another JALTTALKer suggested that the whole thing was a kind of rhetorical farce, intended to generate "news."

    Unfortunately, this is why there's a joke about how applied linguistics is like grapenuts (because they are neither grapes nor nuts). The current fashion is Let's find some topic that we can paint as black and white (even though it is obviously nuanced) and this will generate a lot of discussion that doesn't really mean anything which will then be a metric as to if things should be 'reconsidered'. Let's see, should we use the students' native language in the classroom, should we explicitly teach grammar points, should we teach pronunciation, should we model, should we correct, quick now, the answer is yes or no and there is no in between. And if there's a lot of strong responses, that means that we are dealing with something that matters. While it has always been what happens on Usenet, it's an increasing strategy by newsletters, conferences, and sadly, even journals. Silly me, I hoped that 'moving beyond the dichotomy' meant garnering insights from both ESL and EFL. Hope springs eternal.

    Personally, I learned a lot from the exchanges on JALTTALK regarding whether there is a distinction between ESL and EFL, and what the relevance of that distinction might be. One thing that appears to have been accomplished by Neil Anderson's provocative statements at the JALT forum in Shizuoka is to have opened up a few new channels of communication between ESL and EFL teachers by suggesting that they do not exist in totally separate worlds.

    Story by Robb Scott, Hays, KANSAS

    2003 ESL MiniConference Online