Sorting out Acronyms

My curiosity has been piqued lately regarding the acronym EAL (English as an Additional Language) and its use in Canada. The following are my thoughts on the matter, though I am having  difficulty finding published information about it. Feel free to chime in with any corrections, or of course, with links to anything published about this issue!

Both the institutional department I work for, as well as the provincial teachers’ association whose board I sit on, have the acronym ESL in their names. With both the issue has been raised, either in passing or more seriously, about whether this should be changed, and in these conversations, the alternative presented has been EAL.

I’m well aware of the fact that the acronym ESL is built around the assumption that English must be someone’s second language. It’s indeed an assumption that denies the multi-lingual realities for many people around the world, and seems to stem from the monolingual world view in the English-speaking inner circle.

I accept that this is an out-dated and restrictive acronym. But I always thought that the alternative was the acronym ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), which I always understood as an acronym that still described the same teaching contexts and learners (groups of learners from a variety of different countries, all learning English in order to live/work/study in a country where English is an official language) as ESL, but simply in a more accurate and just way. This acronym is widely used and accepted throughout the world of ELT. End of story, right?

But where did EAL come from? I’ve read accounts of it being used in the UK primary/secondary school system, but not with adult learners, as it is used in Canada. It’s not an acronym widely recognized outside Canada; in fact it’s not even included on many lists of common acronyms in ELT, such as this one. And most importantly, it’s not an acronym many learners have ever heard of before.

Why has Canada re-invented the wheel here? There was already a perfectly functional acronym in use around the world; why don’t we just use ESOL? I have a feeling that it’s something that has stemmed from the Federal Government and their LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) program. With government-funded settlement programs being such a large chunk of the English teaching that has traditionally taken place in Canada, it could have become common use in those contexts, and spilled over into the Canadian ELT world as a whole. (I would love if someone could confirm/deny this theory for me, though, as I have never worked on a LINC-related program.)

My issue is not simply that by choosing its own acronym over the internationally-understood one, Canada has put itself out of step with the rest of the world, and has further contributed to the long list of acronyms that characterize discourse in our profession. But it really comes down to student access.

Our students come to us in a variety of ways, with Google and on-campus referrals being major avenues. Many students are familiar with the ESL acronym and use it to find us. Similarly, in the population as a whole as well as the university community, the ESL acronym is quite well recognized, and so it allows people to find us, understand the basics of what we do, and refer people to us. A change from ESL to ESOL would, I think, allow the organizations I am part of to retain the recognizability of the ESL acronym, while using a term that is more just. But suddenly trading ESL for EAL, the connection to which being bless clear, would undo all the hard work we’ve done raising our profile on campus and in the community in order to have students find their way to us.

Another alternative is to keep the names containing the ESL acronym, but to change the wording in the organizations’ mission statements, descriptions, and promotional materials, etc., so that “second language” is replaced by an alternative. An interesting example of this is NAFSA, which was founded years ago as the “National Association of Foreign Student Advisors” and in light of changing times and terminology is now known as the “Association of International Advisors”, though they’ve kept their acronym for brand recognition purposes.

Update: I reached out to Scott Roy Douglas via Twitter to see if he had any insight into the origins of the acronym EAL. Did the term EAL come out of BC? Here’s the link he refers to in his tweet.



2 thoughts on “Sorting out Acronyms

  1. Hi Jennifer,
    You’re right that in the UK (or in Scotland anyway) the EAL acronym is used for learners in primary and secondary schools, for tutoring given to kids who may have arrived recently in the UK and need English language support. I’m not sure why they don’t just use ESOL, as it would fit the bill well enough, but maybe there’s a feeling that if it’s compulsory education it’s somehow different. I’ve no idea about how or why it’s used in Canada though.
    It’s interesting the point you make about acronyms becoming brands. The CELTA is still the CELTA, but the qualification is now actually called Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Interesting.

  2. Along the same lines, I’ve always had a deep irk for the Canadian-redo of the most common acronym in our industry: ELT. Not only does it refer to Enhanced Language Training here, but it perpetuates the isolation Canadian teachers and learners have from the rest of the world. Then there’s OSLT instead of ESP and the ESL you refer to. I constantly have to footnote my use of “ELT” for our audience. It’s annoying.

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