Different types of language learning explained

November 16, 2015


During a recent workshop I received the question regarding the difference between CLIL and immersion. Also, some other people used CLBT and CLIL as different phrases for the same type of language learning. To make matters worse, some teachers argued EFL is a lot like CLIL.

EFL, immersion, CLBT and CLIL. Lot’s of abbreviations. But what is what?

To clarify things once and for all, let me help you with these different types of education.

All of them have to do with language learning

Just to clarify, all of these phrases have to do with language learning. So there’s a similarity. Teachers who teach with these methods should be proficient in the use of the second language of the students. Not necessarily the second language of the teacher though, as native speakers can be found in all of the different areas of  language education.

That is a good thing. Students learning language from native speakers, no matter the subject they teach, is always a bonus for their language learning process. This does NOT imply non-native language teachers do not do a good job in any way. I know many non-native language teachers who’s English is, in my humble opinion, indistinguishable from native speakers English.

However, the cultural background and the use of words that might just be a little out of the ordinary are an added bonus for any second language learner. (And I can know!)

EFL: Second language learning

EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. This type of education is primarily language based. Typically, this is an English class for students who do not have English as a first language, although this can apply to any other language as well of course.

The main difference with CLIL  is simply the fact that EFL is only English. No subject is taught through English at all. EFL is the type of a lesson a non-CLIL school offers to students who want to learn English as a second language.

Immersion: Integration of the subject

This type of education is the type of language learning you will most commonly encounter at international schools. Students are immersed in the second language during all of the subjects. However, not much attention is spend on the language itself as it is considers the target language for granted.

The main difference with CLIL is thus obvious. In a CLIL lesson the main focus is on the subject, but a CLIL teacher also focuses on language. A teacher in an immersion course does not.

CBLT: Content through language

A less common abbreviation that stands for Content Based Language Learning. This sounds a lot like CLIL, as it also combines both the content and the language.

However, the difference between CBLT and CLIL is, among others, that the subject is taught by language teachers. Not subject teachers.

In other words. an English teacher teaches Mathematics and as you can imagine, the main focus is primarily on language. Not on Mathematics.

CLIL: Full integration of both content and language

Last but not least: Content and Language Integrated Learning. The type of education that allows second language learning by letting students follow classes in a second language, taught by subject teachers who focus on both content and language. This requires teachers to be proficient in the language as well as in the subject, which can pose a challenge.

If done correctly, spending sufficient time on the subject and focusing on language when needed, students learn languages quickly. Also, with a wide variety of teachers teaching them, they get all kinds of different language input. This only adds to the mastering of the target language.


As a Mathematics teacher, I like schematics. Below you can find the differences between the four mentioned types of language learning in a table, hope that helps!


Education: EFL Immersion CBLT CLIL


Who teaches? Language teacher Subject teacher Language teacher Subject teacher or Expert Language teacher


Focus on: Language Subject Language Subject and Language
Feedback on: Language Subject Language Subject and language
Assumption: Language is learned by studying it Content is learned without specific attention to language Language is learned by studying content Language depends on content and vice versa

Want to know more?

“CLIL Activities” by Liz Dale and Rosie Tanner (page 4&5)

Content-Based Instruction, CLIL, and Immersion in Teaching ESP at Tertiary Schools in Non-English-Speaking Countries, Journal of ELT and Applied Linguistics (October 2013)



  • What is the difference between competency based language teaching and task based language teteaching

    • I think the main difference is how you define ‘competences’ and ‘tasks’. One is part of the other. A specific task can be used to develop a competency, but there is quite an overlap between the two.

      For the record, this is actually not related to CLIL in a sense that both have a different approach to language learning. However, they can be used within a CLIL context.

    • In a CLIL context, the role of the language teacher shift from teacher-only to a more supportive role for fellow CLIL subject teachers. As such, they should not just be experts in their own field (of teaching English) but also have to be aware of their role within a CLIL learning environment and act upon that.

      Hope that helps 🙂

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