IceburgSocial Language vs. Academic Language

Jim Cummins, a popular linguistics theorist,  coined the phrases Basic Interpersonal Skills (BICS) and Comprehensive Academic Communication Skills (CALPS) to refer to the two different types of language a second language learner is capable of producing.

BICS is social language;  BICS lie above the water of the ice berg where they can be seen.  They appear first.  BICS are used for survivals, such as:

  • asking to go to the bathroom
  • conversations with peers
  • playing on the playground
  • common slang heard from other students

Unfortunately, it is common for teachers to mistake this language for English proficency. A student will learn to communicate with their peers much faster than communication that requires cognitive academic skills and prior background knowledge in content areas.

Cognitive language is CALPS, and CALPS can take as long as 5 to 7 years to reach grade level proficiency. When relating CALPS to the iceberg theory, CALPS is located beneath the water.  CALPS takes a long time to surface to the top.  The matter below the surface could stay there indefinitely if content teachers do not use strategies and methodologies to  ease the student’s ability to comprehend the content at the student’s level of ability.

English Language learners need to communicate for both social and academic purposes.  If the classroom environment is welcoming and collaborative groups are thoughtfully established, the new student should feel comfortable enough to begin uttering simple phrases and words on a social or survival basis.  The academic language requires more skill.

According to Jana Echevarria in a Linked- In post titled Myth: Content teachers aren’t language teachers
dated Jul 13, 2016

Content area teachers should consider the following when planning effective lessons.

  • What vocabulary do students need in order to understand the content?

  • What kinds of language functions do I need to teach, e.g., compare and contrast, use of superlatives, or making predictions.

Here is Jim Cummins explaining the concept:

Dr Jim Cummins explains the differences between BICS and CALP. from Teach Away Inc. on Vimeo.

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