Learning Social and Academic English in International Schools: BICS and CALP Explained

By Lorna Caputo

One of the principle language theories discussed by the IB and at international education conferences is one created by Professor Jim Cummins from the University of Toronto, Canada, who has identified the key features of bilingual students’ language learning trajectories when they are learning through a language in which they are not yet proficient. I would like to explore Cummins’ theory in this post, as it helps us understand the English language learning path of non-English speaking background students, as well as how EAL support can work.

By no means is Cummins’ theory of language learning new; it was published in the early 1980s and it has been discussed in international educational communities thereafter. However, as academic theories tend to disseminate slowly, they only enter the mainstream consciousness and official educational curricula when they have been thoroughly tested and have been around for some time. In 2008, about 20 years after Cummins’ theory was conceived, a key International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) document on learning in a language other than the mother tongue embedded Cummins’ Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) theory into the IBO language and learning conceptual framework for students being educated in a language different from their mother tongue. It is important to note that not only does the IBO acknowledge Cummins’ BICS and CALP theory as critical in understanding bilingual language development in educational contexts, it is also at the core of how EAL students are supported at many IB schools through their EAL programmes and mother tongue programmes.

In order to fully understand Cummins’ BICS and CALP theory, we have to first explore the differences between a) learning a language other than our mother tongue as part of a greater school curriculum, and b) the ability to use a language other than our mother tongue proficiently throughout the school day to access the whole school curriculum. Almost all of us can remember learning another language at school and many of us currently attend language schools so we can better communicate in another language. Language learning like this often focuses on situational communication: the ability to communicate, on a basic level, one’s needs and preferences in a variety of common situations. Some of us may also have experienced needing to study the more advanced aspects of a language different than our mother tongue to perform better at work or complete university education. What I am trying to say is that these two language learning experiences, i.e. basic situational communication in a language and proficient use of a language (academic or vocational), are very different for both student and teacher; understanding this difference can help us better comprehend EAL students’ learning trajectories at school and respond with the best type of EAL support. Once we understand this distinction, understanding Cummins’ BICS and CALP theory is made easier.

As the IBO explains in its publication on learning in a language other than the mother tongue (2008), Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) in an academic environment refers to the language skills necessary for a student’s social interaction with teachers and other students. Basic communication skills are very concrete and familiar as these develop when one learns his/her mother tongue; students can utilise their own knowledge of facial expressions, gesticulations, and noises to make themselves understood or gain meaning from what is being communicated. Often, EAL students develop BICS in English rapidly, within one or two years of exposure to education in English, as they copy others’ behaviour or understand routines and become familiar with the language they frequently hear in class. BICS is essential, but as we know, success in school requires more than just social use of a language: proficient knowledge of the language of instruction is critical to form new understanding of concepts. And this is where we get Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP): the proficient level in an additional language to comprehend and show understanding of the complex abstract concepts encountered at school. As I mentioned before when I talked about BICS, EAL students often use many BICS skills they have learned previously when faced with the task of communicating in a language different from their mother tongue, and likewise, EAL students who have already learned abstract concepts or have developed sufficient academic language proficiency in their mother tongue, find the challenge of developing Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) in an additional language easier. However, as anyone who has developed proficiency in an additional language will know, this can be a slow and challenging process, taking between five and seven years. So, when parents or class teachers ask EAL teachers why an EAL student still requires EAL support after one, two or even three years, when the student appears to be able to communicate with teachers and friends in class, it is likely that the focus of EAL support has shifted from developing basic communication in English (BICS) to improving academic fluency in English (CALP).

Every EAL student is unique; previous school experience, personality and motivation, mother tongue development, literacy development, support at home, and previous exposure to learning another language or English, all determine how long an EAL student requires EAL support from a specialist EAL teacher, and how well they can engage with the curriculum. The best advice I can give is to keep in mind these key points:

1. learning an additional language is neither quick nor easy

2. accessing the curriculum in a language you are not proficient in is incredibly challenging (and requires specialist support)

3. maintaining your child’s mother tongue and developing mother tongue literacy are important to his or her overall cognitive development

Bibliography

Cummins, J, 1984. Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy. 1st ed. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.

International Baccelaureate Organisation, IBO, 2008. Learning in a Language Other Than Mother Tongue in IB Programmes.

Lopez, E, 2006. Targeting English Language Learners, Tasks, and Treatments in Natasi, B, 2006. Multicultural Issues in School Psychology. 1st ed. USA: Haworth Press.