Proposal: English Language Learners

A Brief Background — 6 months ago as part of the Area 51 process, this proposal was renamed from "English as a Second Language" to "English Language Learners." It was a way to highlight (and defend) the NEED to support a *separate* community for non-native speakers who were falling through the cracks of our English SE site. Congratulations, you've made it! and we are preparing this site for launch.

But before we do so, I implore you to restore the proper name of this site to

English as a Second Language (ESL.StackExchange.com)

Trying to describe the difference between "English Learners" and an "English Language & Usage" site will be difficult at best. If the dividing line become easy questions versus hard questions, the site will fail. On the other hand, when a native (or non-native) speaker sees "ESL" they'll know exactly where they need to be. The audiences are distinct; the line is clear.

This is not about semantics — yes, non-native speakers can fare just fine on EL&U — this is about the end-user experience and letting potential users know (clearly) where they need to be. For every user who stumbles into the wrong forum, it is easy to become confused, and everyone is unhappy.

Let's make this change now so we don't have to spend countless hours telling users they're in the wrong place. It's a wasted effort that will only only drive users away.

  • I don't know...on the one hand, "learners" is not entirely clear, as you say. On the other, the site is not only and perhaps not mainly for people whose second language is English? Learners may catch the attention of the right crowd, "I want to learn English!". I am undecided. Can we think of a third option? – Cerberus Jan 14 '13 at 20:34
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    Crosslinking to previous discussion on this, where I made a similar point to Robert. After some discussion we went ahead and changed the name anyway, as per what Kit says in her answer. (Personally, I am not married to the name this way or the other, plus even if we call the site "Only GRE Questions from Native Speakers of Mingrelian" we will still have an infinite supply of people asking for egg-salad sandwich recipes in Swabian.) – ЯegDwight Jan 14 '13 at 20:48
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    @RegDwight: As long as they're in Swabian, we can make exceptions, right? As long as we push back the Franconians without mercy. – Cerberus Jan 14 '13 at 20:51
  • @RegDwight To be clear, I think the name change was good for the proposal (hey, it worked!)... but the name change has served its purpose and I believe this site will be better served by restoring the more mainstream moniker before launching this site. – Robert Cartaino Jan 14 '13 at 21:10
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    I don't think this is a compelling reason to change, given that it is coming from someone ostensibly against the entire enterprise (a mod who shut it down autocratically, even with a steady stream of committers). I may think the title is terrible and so may other committers, but if we don't think it is worth the bother to change, then let it stand. (I think the title is just fine, and frankly same with ESL, and even 'Basic English', or even 'Preposition choices in English', because they'll all be pretty descriptive of reality) – Mitch Harris Jan 14 '13 at 22:37
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    @Mitch Your ad hominem reasoning is ludicrous given that I've spearheaded the effort to keep this proposal going while keeping it from becoming EL&U's toilet. That's where my concerns lie, so I'll drop this here. I'm glad to see your name in the Commitment list, so I hope you bring some of the constructive work you've done on English SE to the new site. Take care. – Robert Cartaino Jan 14 '13 at 23:11
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    My apologies if I have too narrow a view of your involvement (all I remember is you closing this proposal even though the rate of committing was steady) and you did change your mind once there was a lot of complaining. – Mitch Harris Jan 14 '13 at 23:36
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    @Mitch No problem. It's all part of the process, and these gyrations have spurred some of the strongest site launches in recent memory. I hope that's the case here, so it's all good. – Robert Cartaino Jan 15 '13 at 0:04
  • @RobertCartaino Fersher. Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 15 '13 at 1:23
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    Robert, I agree. I'm the highest-rep player on EL&U and I still consider myself an English language learner. It's all about keeping a student mind. There's always something new to discover. – Robusto Jan 15 '13 at 1:33
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    ESL seems to me to be the wrong name: that's strictly for people who live in an anglophone country. EFL is for students of English as a second or other language, those who, like me, live in places like Taiwan where English is studied by everyone but isn't a native language. As someone who's taught ESL (in the USA) & EFL (in Japan and Taiwan) for 40 years, I can accept ELL and ESOL, but not just ESL or EFL. We don't want to exclude anyone learning English, even native speakers. And like Robusto, although I'm a native speaker, I still consider myself an English language learner. – user70308 Jan 16 '13 at 8:04
  • As MετάEd rightly points out in his answer, you'd be far better off renaming EL&U to reflect the more advanced or academic nature of that Stack than limiting the scope of this one by naming it ESL which has the wrong connotation for all the reasons many of the answers give. You'd then have two stacks: EL Learners and EL Advanced or Academic. That should make both stacks quite separate and distinct as to what audience they're aimed at. – spiceyokooko Jan 16 '13 at 13:19
  • What will make this issue go away so we can launch? – Matt Ellen Jan 23 '13 at 14:17
  • @MattEllen The site is slated to launch this week, as-is. – Robert Cartaino Jan 23 '13 at 14:20
  • @RobertCartaino Thanks! That's great news. – Matt Ellen Jan 23 '13 at 14:49

I understand what you are saying, but "English as a Second Language" is non-preferred lingo in educational circles. English Language Learners is the accepted, current terminology for the intended audience. Renaming the site "ESL" will label it as amateur to professionals.

Alternatively, English for Speakers of Other Languages is also occasionally used.

For instance, from the NYC A Guide for Educators of English Language Learners:

ELLs are students who speak a language other than English at home, and testing indicates these students have some limitations in their English language abilities, whether it is speaking, listening, reading, writing, or a combination of two or more. Other terms oftentimes used interchangeably with ELLs are Limited English Proficient (LEP) and English as a Second Language (ESL) student. ELL is the preferred term in most of the literature because of the negative connotation seen in LEP and the fact that ESL more accurately expresses a type of program that ELLs can be placed in.

I think that ESL does not accurately describe the audience we are seeking. I feel pretty strongly that the site should stay as "English Language Learners", but I also recognize that I may be working in a discipline (literacy education) that has provided me with a robust set of blinders.

ELLs are the people, ESL is a subset of instruction. I think ELL encompasses the breadth of the audience we are seeking. We want questions from people learning English and people teaching English about the particulars of this process. ESL limits the range of questions that fit into the categories we've discussed as appropriate for the site.

We don't want this site to be EL&U's dumping ground. That is not its purpose. It is not for questions about the study of English, but for questions about learning and teaching English. ELL is more suited for attracting professionals in the field. We will have plenty of amateur users no matter what we name it, but without some pros in the mix, the site might as well be named Yahoo Answers.

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    Hmm which educational circles are these? Because "ESL" is generally more widespread, I think? – Cerberus Jan 14 '13 at 20:38
  • @Cerb It is about the equivalent of calling black people "colored." – Kit Z. Fox Jan 14 '13 at 20:39
  • ...except that the people in question won't be able to understand it anyway! – Cerberus Jan 14 '13 at 20:44
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    I don't mean to imply that it is intentionally pejorative. Mostly just outdated and would raise eyebrows, at least in the literacy education group that I work in. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 14 '13 at 21:03
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    @KitFox The issue of using lingo bothers me to no end. I really would like to use the correct "expert-approved" vernacular, but I'm afraid that sticking fast to semantic arguments will obfuscate the purpose of this site and endanger its very existence. Our primary target audience is not academia (although I understand the need to include them). I'm just torn about the bigger picture of portraying this as the toilet for so-called "easy questions" not wanted on EL&U. That's not the purpose of creating this site at all. – Robert Cartaino Jan 14 '13 at 22:07
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    @Robert I really do understand. I feel the same way. I want to do what's right and make the purpose of the site clear. I don't want to discourage teachers, and I also don't want to discourage the learners. Let's hope the community backing this proposal has a clear idea of what should be done. Naturally, I'll support the site regardless of what we call it in the end. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 14 '13 at 22:32
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    Wow @KitFox, I did -not- take the pejorative meaning of ESL from that quote. I thought it said that ESL is one -kind- of ELL and that -LEP- is the pejorative. – Mitch Harris Jan 15 '13 at 0:18
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    @Mitch I said not pejorative, just outdated. ESL is one kind of class that you might put ELLs into, is what I believe the quotation means. {I wrote more but decided to edit it into my answer.} – Kit Z. Fox Jan 15 '13 at 1:47
  • @KitFox: What about "Language users"? Neither ELL or ESL, but asking questions of no academic interest thus inappropriate for EL&U. What I mean is we are unable to foresee the final audience precisely; no point nitpicking on the name to best match our predicted audience when such prediction is quite uncertain. – SF. Jan 15 '13 at 9:17
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    @SF. "Language users" implies a certain level of proficiency. I think it sets the bar too high for learners. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 15 '13 at 13:39
  • @KitFox: ouch, a misunderstanding. I wasn't suggesting that as a title. – SF. Jan 15 '13 at 13:49
  • "English as a Second Language" is non-preferred lingo in educational circles — why? – gerrit Jan 16 '13 at 8:48
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    @gerrit It does not accurately describe the service population. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 16 '13 at 12:49

It is not yet evident to me that the community has determined that questions are sought only from non-native speakers. Consider the discussions here:

Why limit the new group to ESL?
Drawing the lines between ELL and ELU
English for language users

This is not to say that the principal patrons of this site will not be non-native speakers; but why should we deliberately select a name which will categorically exclude native speakers?

It’s not as if your average US high-school student doesn’t need help, or your average college student — or, for that matter, my average client, who is a thirty- or forty-something with an MBA. They’re all in need of friendly, intelligible, authoritative guidance.

To be sure, these are actually “ESL” students, too. They’re struggling with a Standard English which is fundamentally foreign to the regional or sociological or professional dialects they speak more or less fluently and write — let’s say adequately. But they don’t know that; they never will know that, unless they come here and we tell them; and if we name the site ESL or EFL or EOL or ESOL or EIL or E2L they won’t come. That’s bad marketing.

I say hang on ELL for the time being; this question is premature until we can address your own admirable Seven Essential Questions as a comprehensive whole, not atomic rushes-to-judgment.

  • Oh, dear. I was on the fence, for similar reasons, and now your eloquent prediction of what may be to come is quite convincing. Your intelligent high-schooler who wants to learn more about "proper English", and your MBA guy who wants to learn more about, say, academic English make a compelling case against ESL, even though it is by far the most common term. On the other hand, questions about academic English would go to EL&U. As you say, perhaps we haven't defined the details of what our scope will be yet. Perhaps ELL is the safest choice. We probably can't change our name again in beta? – Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 0:09
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    Honestly? If the dividing line was predominantely "simple" vs. "advanced" questions, this proposal would not likely have been allowed to continue. But a weighty argument was made that non-native ESL students have inherently different needs that are falling through the cracks of our current English site. That gave us a clear audience. Look to KitFox's answer (and I believe RegDwight's thoughts in other threads). Good thoughts. We're not exactly checking your "non-native credentials" at the door, but if this becomes a dumping ground for poor English SE questions, this site will not make it. – Robert Cartaino Jan 15 '13 at 0:19
  • @RobertCartaino There's more overlap between the ESL and the HS/Coll QQ than you might think. At least six and perhaps nine of the top 10 'definition' questions might equally be asked by a native speaker. Not by you or me, of course; but many many native speakers are wholly out of their depth in trying to understand and express themselves in SE. Ask any juco or college English teacher; better still, ask the grad TAs who get stuck with those students. Those learners, of whatever mother-tongue, are our prospective audience; why chase them away? – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 15 '13 at 1:20
  • @Cerberus It ain't just the intelligent high-schoolers who need us. And some questions about academic SE belong on ELU; but as I've written elsewhere, it's not just the character of the question we need to address. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 15 '13 at 1:27
  • @RobertCartaino: I was thinking quality control will be very important on the unnamed site. I would simply close and delete questions in short order that show no research where research is possible, that have insufficient context for us to answer them, or that are poorly formatted. It is easy to spot the difference between a forruner who makes many typical ESL mistakes but is careful to explain what he needs and who takes care to use capitals and punctuation, and one who makes many careless typos and uses no formatting at all. We will have to discuss this on the new Meta, I should think. – Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 5:01
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    @Cerberus Edit! Edit! Edit! – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 15 '13 at 7:17
  • @StoneyB: To be honest, I might not be so inclined...can't we expect higher quality of our users than of some random ESL site on the web? – Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 13:33
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    @Cerberus: I think there may be a way to edit that makes a user feel good about having been edited, and eager to do better next time - which is one of the thing's editing's supposed to accomplish. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 15 '13 at 16:10
  • @StoneyB: That would be the ideal, yes. We'll have to figure out how to approach this once the site goes live. – Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 17:49
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    EFL students like to be edited. They like to know what mistakes they're making & how to correct them. I don't think we can expect a higher quality of question from ESL/EFL students than from users of random ESL/EFL sites on the web. Haven't you ever felt "I just don't know enough about this subject to ask an intelligent question"? – user70308 Jan 16 '13 at 8:21
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    @BillFranke That's been my feeling about EFL students; but I didn't like to say so solely on the basis of what I've seen on ELU. Glad to have your confirmation. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 16 '13 at 12:53
  • @BillFranke: Absolutely, but I was thinking of sloppiness. Many ESL questions are sloppy, and those irk me. Your English can be terrible, but you can still ask a question that says "I took care to write down my question to the best of my abilities". – Cerberus Jan 16 '13 at 17:08
  • @Cerberus: One of the things that always amazed me in Japan & here in Taiwan is that even when copying verbatim, EFL students make what to me are inexcusable errors: they almost never proofread for grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc., or read what they wrote for content, & they almost always assume that the first shot is the only shot they get. My son is usually better than that, but he still makes me shake my head in pain with some of his linguistic assaults. :-( – user70308 Jan 16 '13 at 23:06
  • @BillFranke: I have seen kids do this too. And I think it is perhaps excusable for kids, who do not really want to be in school. But on this website, shouldn't we expect more of our users? We are doing them a "favour", after all: all we ask in return is the "favour" of being allowed to answer enjoyable questions. An extremely sloppy question is not really enjoyable for me. – Cerberus Jan 16 '13 at 23:57
  • @Cerberus: I wish I could say, after 40 years of teaching EFL/ESL to kids (mostly high school) through 70-year-olds, that we could expect more, but I can't. Most of us on EL&U are passionate about language. We want to know how to use it well. Most EFL students are like computer end users: they want to turn on their PC & not have to think about it. I had a PhD friend who used to call me a few times a year to ask me to solve the same MS Windows question. She just couldn't be bothered to remember what I'd said before or to learn even the basics of how her PC worked. Same with ELLs, I'm afraid. – user70308 Jan 17 '13 at 2:55

One thing I don't like about this proposed English as a Second Language name change is that many people I've run across aren't speaking English as a second language. They may speak it as a third language, or a fourth language, but not as a second language.

I had a friend in college who told me (quite seriously) that English was her fourth language. Lebanese was her native tongue, and she was more fluent in French and Spanish than in English. Naming a site as though every non-native considers English as their second language seems potentially presumptuous, especially considering this site's global audience.


If we are considering how the names of the two sites are confusing, we should be giving equal consideration to the name of EL&U and how it contributes to the confusion. I doubt I can contribute a good name idea. To illustrate the approach I have in mind, though: after reviewing the list of SE sites, I suggest it be renamed “English Language Science” to reflect its focus on the scientific study of the English language by professionals and enthusiastic amateurs. This would still leave it wide open to basic questions along more academic lines, and simultaneously clarify the difference between it and “English Language Learners” focusing more on the practical issues facing language learners.

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    I agree; EL&U name is extremely confusing. There's nowhere in there anything that's about academic study. You need to dig into the FAQ to find out general questions are not welcome. – SF. Jan 15 '13 at 9:23
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    In that case, Academic & Literary English might be more accurate, since English is normally not considered a science—or is it? I'm not a huge fan of approaching a language (only) as a science rather than as part of the humanities. – Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 13:35
  • @Cerberus Our experts deal with all forms of English. Don’t you think Academic & Literary English would give people the wrong idea that the site is about a particular register? – MetaEd Jan 15 '13 at 14:58
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    @MEd: Yes...it's just that I like "science" even less, I'm sorry. – Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 15:02
  • @Cerberus We do not have to use that word. But Linguists and etymologists surely take a scientific approach to language, not a literary one. The literary approach is taken by writers and literary critics. Literary criticism belongs at Writers.SE, not EL&U. – MetaEd Jan 15 '13 at 15:53
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    @MEd: I don't know. At Dutch universities, linguistics, English, and anything related to language is always strictly part of the faculty of letters or humanities. A linguist is a Master of Arts here. Is it different at Anglo-Saxon universities? Linguistics is certainly more sciency than literary studies, but, if you study "English", you will be doing linguistics half the time, I believe, and literature the other half, since the two are mostly inseparable, especially etymology. – Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 17:47
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    @Cerb How about the "Study of English Language" instead then? – Kit Z. Fox Jan 16 '13 at 12:50
  • @KitFox: Hmm maybe? The only thing is that it sounds a little bit pineapply, as if you had forgotten the...hey, what do you think of a less descriptive, but but more "crative" name, like...okay, I know this sounds bad, but just as an example of the genre I am talking about, The English Academy? Many SE sites have names that are not entirely descriptive. I don't know. – Cerberus Jan 16 '13 at 17:03
  • @Cerberus I think that has too much in common with English Language Learners. It suggests an acadamy where someone would learn English. – MetaEd Jan 16 '13 at 20:54
  • @MEd: Oh, wait, we were talking about a name for ELU. I wasn't paying attention. – Cerberus Jan 16 '13 at 22:04

I hope I have finally read all discussions on this matter.

First, I agree that English Language Learners sounds much safer than English as a Second Language.

Second, this discussion, unless solved effectively at once, will stay forever. People will raise questions on Meta, argue, waste their time, and finally distract each other from using the site.

Third, the main goal is how to avoid becoming ELU's trash can. @Robert Cartaino is absolutely right: the complexity of the questions is a very bad borderline. However, as @StoneyB noticed, declaring "Second Language" is also problematic.

International English

This is the answer. It will be a two-fold definition, clearly saying the site will be about English as used in two contexts:

  1. International usage context - the site will be about English the way it is used by native and non-native speakers;
  2. International membership context - the site is adapted for the users who are not native speakers, who may struggle at the different level of language proficiency.

Also, there will be a clear distinction between International and Standard English which is the subject of EL&U.

There's a synonym, Global English, but personally I don't like it that much.

The Wikipedia article has more detailed insight.

Also, I would love the term of Simple English, but it has been usurped by a proprietary subset for special needs. If the moderators/FAQs can argue enough to distantiate it from the proprietary contexts, that would be the best name.

  • After reading your rationale, I understand your choice, but International English does not immediately suggest the proposed content of the site to me. Simple English is taken, so maybe "Simply English" or "Everyday English"? – Kit Z. Fox Jan 16 '13 at 12:53
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    Standard English is not the subject of ELU; it's only a small subset of that subject, which includes all Englishes. I believe, however, that SE should be the subject of this site. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 16 '13 at 12:59
  • Wikipedia is a proprietary subset? – Andrew Grimm Jan 17 '13 at 11:16
  • @AndrewGrimm (1) "a controlled language originally developed for aerospace industry maintenance manuals" and (2) "a simplified form of English used by broadcasting service Voice of America" -- yes, it seems to be so. – bytebuster Jan 17 '13 at 11:20
  • As they use "Basic English" and "Simplified English" and "Special English", there's no-one (apart from Wikipedia) stopping us from using "Simple English". – Andrew Grimm Jan 17 '13 at 11:26
  • @AndrewGrimm I don't argue. The only concern is that many people who are using "Simple English" part of Wikipedia may be confused. – bytebuster Jan 17 '13 at 11:30
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    English is an international medium of communication but it’s not an International Language for native English speaker. For them, it’s their mother tongue. We should also respect English dialects (US, UK, Australia etc) and not force a label on people. Lastly, I think this site would benefit by having both the native and non-native English speaker. – EnglishLearner Apr 10 '13 at 19:48

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