Tuesday, October 19, 2010
By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
I was raised in a Brooklyn neighborhood called Flatbush. What made Flatbush so typical of New York neighborhoods was what we commonly refer to today as the diversity in population found there. Talk about celebrating diversity . . . we “celebrated” it every single day. When I ran errands for my family when I was a kid, I might go to the German greengrocer’s, the Italian cobbler’s, the Jewish deli, or the small Puerto Rican grocery. My folks might get Chinese takeout or buy greeting cards at the Lebanese gift shop. What made all of these small business people so interesting was that none of them was a native speaker of English. They all communicated well enough in English to function successfully in their businesses, but they were all using what linguist Jim Cummins refers to as BICS, Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills – and that’s the first acronym language teachers need to understand.
I’m sure many of you have known people such as family members, neighbors, or friends who have a good, basic command of English and can use the language in just about any informal situation, but whose language skills still leave something to be desired. These people may neglect all 3rd person singular verb forms, probably don’t use irregular verbs properly in the past all the time, may leave out the articles, and have their own peculiarities of pronunciation, just to name a few defective areas of their language skills. But the main point is that they still communicate well enough and know how to get their ideas across appropriately so that the majority of native speakers don’t have trouble understanding them. My own grandmother was a perfect example of someone like this. I used to get a kick out of some of her pronunciations and syntactic constructions. “That really argavated me!” she would say, instead of aggravated. “Write to your cousin a letter maybe,” she might say instead of “Perhaps you should write a letter to your cousin” or “Maybe you should write your cousin a letter.” And then there was the super in the apartment building I lived in as a kid who’d say in anger, “He’s a real summunubeet!” (I’m sure you can guess what he meant.)
Although Jim Cummins and other linguists have focused their attention on L2 development in children , I think we can apply these ideas to adults as well. According to the literature, it takes about two years for the average child to reach the level of communication in the new language that we refer to as BICS, so it most likely takes longer for an adult to attain that level.
But even if a speaker attains BICS and our impression is that the person does quite well in the L2, the pitfall is that we may assume that person can also do well in more formal or academic situations. Usually, however, that’s not the case. The ability to handle formal or academic language well is referred to by Cummins as CALP, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency – and this is the second acronym all language teachers need to understand. It’s claimed that children require between five and seven years to attain this level of language ability, and in adults it may take even longer. This is a daunting claim, one that many language teachers may disagree with based upon their personal experiences with students and observations of how those students can perform in the L2. I, for one, tend to agree with the concepts of BICS and CALP, although I’m not sure I agree completely with the time frames given.
Being aware of BICS and CALP makes perfect sense. I know for a fact that my grandmother and those small business owners in my Brooklyn neighborhood functioned perfectly well on a day-to-day basis in English, but I’m certain that even if they had solid educational backgrounds from “the old country,” those same people would have felt very uncomfortable and very insecure in formal or academic surroundings and in dealing with formal or academic reading.
The point is, as language teachers we should keep in mind that it takes a great deal of patience and quite a bit of time to achieve BICS and a lot more time to achieve CALP. And even though the prospect of having to wait so long before our students can feel comfortable in their L2 in formal or academic settings is a daunting one, we need to face this reality and get our students to understand this as well so that they don’t become too frustrated because they’ve been thrust prematurely into a situation where higher language skills are required. This goes equally for adults and children, and it’s something all language teachers should keep in mind.