When a student learns English in order to live and work in an English speaking country we say they are learning English as a Second Language.
For example, these kinds of people learn English as a second language:
- an Afghan refugee resettled in Australia
- a Russian student who is studying at an American university
- a French woman who marries an English man and goes to live in London
In all these cases these people need to learn English to live and function in their new country. They retain their mother tongue (in these examples above, this is probably Pashto, Russian, and French) while English becomes their second language.
In linguistic terms, the process by which they learn English is known as SLA or Second Language Acquisition.
Second Language vs Foreign Language
The concept second language is sometimes confused with foreign language in TEFL teaching.
Essentially while a second language is learned by someone living in an English speaking country, English as a foreign language is learned by people who do NOT live in an English speaking country.
For example, these people learn English but they do not live in an English speaking country:
- an Afghan businessman who lives in Kabul but wants to communicate with Australian companies in English
- a Russian scientist who works in Germany and who wants to publish scientific papers in English
- a French woman who marries an English man and together they move to live in Norway but they decide to speak English together
In other words, these people do not need English to survive in an English speaking country. They do not need English to deal with local bureaucracy, to watch local television and so on.
TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language – for teachers, what it means to teach English as a foreign language
TESL – Teaching English as a Second Language – for teachers, what it means to teach English as a second language
TEFL vs TESOL vs TESL vs CELTA vs… – a look at the difference between these common teaching acronyms