Terminology to Describe Multilingual Learners: Labels and Their Implications

Terminology maps available for free download

At SupportEd, we had been hearing the terms English learner, multilingual learner, multilingual language learner, and emergent bilingual being used interchangeably. These were just a few of many terms used in the field of English language development, and we wanted to gain a true picture of how the field was evolving. So, the SupportEd team began research to help understand what terminology other educational professionals were using to describe multilingual learners. 

Our research took place in 2022-23 and was framed around five guiding questions to provide us data on which terms were being used by five leading organizations and agencies in the field of ELD education and assessment as well as terms used in the United States, the District of Columbia, and the Canadian provinces and territories. We also considered which terms captured students’ cultural and linguistic assets, promoted advocacy and equity work, and fostered shared language use among stakeholders.  

We are pleased to release our paper that explores the terminology used to describe multilingual learners and the implications of this terminology. The paper opens by highlighting the sense of urgency for this work and then provides our guiding questions, research process, and a discussion of our research findings, including maps of the terminology used in the U.S. and Canada. We also share quotes from several colleagues in the field of ELD education whom we reached out to for their input on this important topic. The paper closes with our final thoughts and appendices containing more detailed information related to our data collection.  

Our key findings in the U.S. and the District of Columbia include:

• Thirty states and the District of Columbia use only EL consistently on their state education web pages.  

•  Eight states use a combination of EL and ELL on their state education web pages.  

•  Seven states use a combination of EL and ML or ELL and ML/MLL. 

•  Three states only use ML.  

•  One state uses EL and EB.

Our key findings in Canada include:

•  The Canadian provinces and territories use varied terms including ELL, ESL learner, and EAL (English as an additional language) learner.

•  Four provinces and two territories use ELL.

•  Four provinces use EAL Learner. 

•  Two provinces use ESL learner.  

•  One territory uses no term. 

 We would like to hear your thoughts on the language used for the assets-rich, multicultural, and multilingual group of students. Please share your comments via Twitter using the hashtag #MLTerminology and tag us at @SupportEduc. 

About SupportEd
SupportEd, LLC is a woman-owned small business based in Fairfax, VA specializing in Multilingual Learners (MLs). Founded in 2011 by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, best-selling author and ML expert, SupportEd meticulously crafts customized solutions to fit each client’s strengths, needs, and provides teachers and administrators the practical tools necessary to champion MLs’ success within and beyond the classroom. All SupportEd team members have prior experience in the classroom which enables the SupportEd team to provide realistic, actionable solutions. Services include online and in-person immersive professional development workshops, easy-to-implement tools and resources, and an array of supporting services. Visit or call (202) 660-1444 to learn more.