Okay I may have oversold with the title. Tonight I’m just going to explain 2 simple Linguistic terms. These terms however can explain a lot of confusion many people have about what it means to “learn a language.”
Language learning can be looked at as having 2 stages, especially for those who are still in the world of academia. These two stages are often referred to as BICS and CALP.
BICS- Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills
These are your basic social and functional language skills. Introducing yourself, making a purchase at a local store, even basic dating talk all fall in this category. These skills tend to be picked up relatively quickly. They are full of scripted phrases with easily predictable responses. Most students in an immersion environment master these skills in 1-3 years.
Unfortunately for many ESL students, this leads teachers and peers to the erroneous believe that they “speak English” and therefore should be able to do the same level of work as everyone else. What they fail to take into account is that while these students have indeed mastered daily life language skills, they have not yet mastered the second stage of language learning which is crucial in the academic arena
CALP- Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency
THIS is key. This is learning all the academic vocabulary necessary for your scholastic endeavors. This includes both contentvocabulary (specific words by subject area such as allusion in a Literature class or photosynthesis in Biology) as well as structural vocabulary (words like paraphrase, summarize, and compare) which are necessary to complete academic tasks.
Many native speakers struggle with this type of vocabulary. We often see students who come from homes with less print-rich environments (i.e. less reading and books available) struggle with picking up these new vocabulary terms. One could argue that they have to learn a new sociolect (think dialect but associated with socioeconomic status). This type of language is much more difficult for ESL students to pick up, as well as language learners of all tongues. On average it takes students 5-7years to pick up CALP in their new language.
This why a student may very well be able to shoot the shit about their favorite movies with their peers but not be able to write an effective compare and contrast essay about a book and a film from class. They may have their BICS but not have fully developed their CALP.
So I think I’ve made it clear why it’s important to understand the difference between these two from a teaching perspective. But what about as a learner? Do they matter?
I think so. For one thing, understanding the amount of time it takes to pick up each helps one develop a realistic time frame about how long it will take them to do so. If you want to be able to read scholastic articles in your new language, you are looking at a longer time frame than someone who just wants to order coffee.
For another, I feel like these two can really help someone set their goals in the first place. Is your goal to be sufficiently sociable in your new language, or do you want to enjoy its literature, history, and other academic contributions? EITHER IS PERFECTLY OKAY, just one requires a bigger time commitment. A friend of mine asked me to teach her Spanish. I asked her what her goals were and she said “I just want to get my BICS.” Perfect- now I know how to focus your instruction.
In a future post, I’ll talk about the best ways to develop each. For now, I hope it’s enough to understand the difference and to use this knowledge to help set your goals, pacing, and time frames in realistic ways- enough to challenge, but not so much as to frustrate.
For now, I bid all of you fair followers adieu. I’m only 1 away from 50- how crazy is that? Thank you for your support and general linguintastic awesomeness. Feel free to hit up that message box with your ideas, comments, and tips to share. Ta Ta For Now!
Original Article Posting can be found here. Originally posted 05/20/14.