Musings: The EFL / MFL divide

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. It’s only in the past few days that a few timely comments on Twitter have motivated me to get my thoughts on paper (well, screen).

I want to write my musings about two sectors of language education: EFL (English as a Foreign Language) and MFL (Modern Foreign Languages). I’ve spoken about terminology before, and I’ll start my discussion there. We language teachers and linguists know that words are powerful, and so I don’t think terminology can be pushed aside as just semantics. But, what I really would like to ponder in this post, is the fact that the two sectors seem to be so divided, as if they are completely mutually exclusive dichotomies. I’d like to argue that this is not the case, and that there is merit in bringing the sectors together.

For twelve years I worked in Australia teaching Japanese to school students. For some of that time I was officially called a ‘LOTE’ (Languages Other Than English) teacher. This is not a term I liked, particularly because it creates a distinct wall between us (English) and them (Other). The full rant is in an earlier blog post if you are interested.

After the term LOTE, thankfully, died out of fashion, it was replaced with ‘Languages’. So, I was a Languages teacher. But there was some confusion because many educators refer to the school subject English (as in, first language literacy) as ‘language’.

Internationally, the term MFL is common. In the scholarly literature and in more informal contexts such as blogs and pedagogical discussions on social media, MFL does not appear to include EFL. But, isn’t English a foreign language to many, many people?

The gap between EFL and MFL is real. Conferences rarely bring the ‘two sectors’ together. Many MFL journals explicitly state that papers focusing purely on EFL will not be accepted. EFL and MFL departments in universities rarely talk to each other.

I’m not saying that EFL and MFL are the same thing. In particular, the contexts are quite different. MFL is, in my opinion, less respected, and less supported at a political and societal level. EFL is well supported, and there are commercial endeavours which are, of course, out to make a profit, but also provide a wealth of resources not seen in MFL.

The foundational principles of teaching and learning a language, in my understanding,  would be the same for someone teaching English to students in Japan, or French to students in the UK, or Spanish to students in the US. Of course, each L1 would influence the L2 in different ways, there would be different cultural differences to consider, different types and levels of motivation, different reactions to different types of learning experiences, etc. etc. etc. and all the differences you would find in any classroom of individuals with unique interests, backgrounds and learning histories.

However, if we assume that the basic principles of Second Language Acquisition, and the tenets of sound pedagogy, do not change, and in any case we consider the context and the individual learner, then why is there such a divide between the two?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but in retrospect I’m complicit. As an MFL teacher, when I came across an online discussion or journal article about EFL, I flicked past it. That’s a different world, I thought. And when I did move from MFL to EFL I called it a leap. I felt like I had taken a leap into the unknown. In fact, at first I felt somewhat of a traitor. I saw my role in Australia as promoting diversity, of teaching my students about the people and places of the world, outside of their ‘Anglobubble’ (Hajek, 2015). Much of my role was advocacy, fighting a permeating mindset that English is the most powerful and important language in the world, so why should I learn another one. And here I am. Teaching English.

Yes I’m wearing a scarf and knit hat in my heated office as I write this in December instead of sweltering in a uninsulated classroom. I’m in a different country and a different institution with different policies. But in terms of what I teach and how I teach, It’s not so different. As always I try to consider each individual and each context, but the underlying principles haven’t changed.

I think now, had I stopped and looked at the EFL blogs that I am now aware of, I would have gathered some great ideas for my classroom. Had I had the opportunity to attend a conference with teachers from both sectors, I would have met some great educators with different ideas (different because of their own personal experiences not because of the categorisation of their job).

The boundaries that have been placed around the sectors of EFL and MFL, mean that opportunities for collaboration, discussion, and sharing of resources and ideas, are unfortunately being missed.

I’m not an EFL teacher. I’m not an MFL teacher. I’m a language teacher. If you teach a language, I’m interested to hear what you have to say, regardless of your label.



*Do you feel that there is a divide between EFL and MFL?
*Have you crossed over from teaching one language to another, what were your experiences?
*What ideas do you have for bridging the divide?
*What might be the benefits of EFL and MFL teachers collaborating?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at




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