Interpersonal Communicative Skills and Cognitive Academic Language
The acronyms BICS and CALP refer to a distinction
introduced by Cummins (1979) between basic interpersonal communicative skills
and cognitive academic language proficiency. The distinction was intended to
draw attention to the very different time periods typically required by
immigrant children to acquire conversational fluency in their second language as
compared to grade-appropriate academic proficiency in that language.
Conversational fluency is often acquired to a functional level within
about two years of initial exposure to the second language
whereas at least five years is usually required to catch up to native
speakers in academic aspects of the second language (Collier, 1987; Klesmer,
1994; Cummins, 1981a). Failure to take account of the BICS/CALP
(conversational/academic) distinction has resulted in discriminatory
psychological assessment of bilingual students and premature exit from language
support programs (e.g. bilingual education in the United States) into mainstream
classes (Cummins, 1984).
Origins of the BICS/CALP Distinction
Skutnabb-Kangas and Toukomaa (1976) brought attention to the fact that Finnish immigrant children in Sweden often appeared to educators to be fluent in both Finnish and Swedish but still showed levels of verbal academic performance in both languages considerably below grade/age expectations. Similarly, analysis of psychological assessments administered to minority students showed that teachers and psychologists often assumed that children who had attained fluency in English had overcome all difficulties with English (Cummins, 1984). Yet these children frequently performed poorly on English academic tasks as well as in psychological assessment situations. Cummins (1981a) provided further evidence for the BICS/CALP distinction in a reanalysis of data from the Toronto Board of Education. Despite teacher observation that peer-appropriate conversational fluency in English developed rapidly, a period of 5-7 years was required, on average, for immigrant students to approach grade norms in academic aspects of English.
The distinction was elaborated into two intersecting
continua (Cummins, 1981b) which highlighted the range of cognitive demands and
contextual support involved in particular language tasks or activities
(context-embedded/context-reduced, cognitively undemanding/cognitively
demanding). The BICS/CALP distinction was maintained within this elaboration and
related to the theoretical distinctions of several other theorists (e.g.
Bruner’s  communicative and analytic competence, Donaldson’s 
embedded and disembedded language, and Olson’s  utterance and text).
The terms used by different investigators have varied but the essential
distinction refers to the extent to which the meaning being communicated is
supported by contextual or interpersonal cues (such as gestures, facial
expressions, and intonation present in face-to-face interaction) or dependent on
linguistic cues that are largely independent of the immediate communicative
The BICS/CALP distinction also served to qualify John
Oller's (1979) claim that all individual differences in language proficiency
could be accounted for by just one underlying factor, which he termed global
language proficiency. Oller synthesized a considerable amount of data
showing strong correlations between performance on cloze tests of reading,
standardized reading tests, and measures of oral verbal ability (e.g. vocabulary
measures). Cummins (1979, 1981b) pointed out that not all aspects of language
use or performance could be incorporated into one dimension of global language
proficiency. For example, if we
take two monolingual English-speaking siblings, a 12-year old child and a
six-year old, there are enormous differences in these children's ability to read
and write English and in their knowledge of vocabulary, but minimal differences
in their phonology or basic fluency. The
six-year old can understand virtually everything that is likely to be said to
her in everyday social contexts and she can use language very effectively in
these contexts, just as the 12-year old can.
Similarly, as noted above, in second language acquisition contexts,
immigrant children typically manifest very different time periods required to
catch up to their peers in everyday face-to-face aspects of proficiency as
compared to academic aspects.
Early critiques of the conversational/academic
distinction were advanced by Carole
Edelsky and her colleagues (Edelsky et al., 1983) and in a volume edited by
Charlene Rivera (1984). Edelsky (1990) later reiterated and reformulated her
critique and other critiques were advanced by Martin-Jones and Romaine (1986)
and Wiley (1996).
The major criticisms are as follows:
The conversational/academic language distinction reflects
an autonomous perspective on language that ignores its location in social
practices and power relations (Edelsky et al., 1983; Wiley, 1996).
CALP or academic language proficiency represents little
more than “test-wiseness” - it is an artifact of the inappropriate way in
which it has been measured (Edelsky et al., 1983).
The notion of CALP promotes a “deficit theory”
insofar as it attributes the academic failure of bilingual/minority students to
low cognitive/academic proficiency rather than to inappropriate schooling (Edelsky,
1990; Edelsky et al., 1983; Martin-Jones & Romaine, 1986).
response to these critiques, Cummins (Cummins & Swain, 1983; Cummins, in
press) pointed to the elaborated sociopolitical framework within which the
BICS/CALP distinction was placed (Cummins, 1986, 1996) where underachievement
among subordinated students was attributed to coercive relations of power
operating in the society at large and reflected in schooling practices. He also
invoked the work of Biber (1986) and Corson (1995) as evidence of the linguistic
reality of the distinction. Corson highlighted the enormous lexical differences
between typical conversational interactions in English as compared to academic
or literacy-related uses of English. Similarly, Biber’s analysis of more than
one million words of English speech and written text revealed underlying
dimensions very consistent with the distinction between conversational and
academic aspects of language proficiency. Cummins also pointed out that the
construct of academic language proficiency does not in any way depend on test
scores as support for either its construct validity or relevance to education,
as illustrated by the analyses of Corson and Biber.
The distinction between BICS and CALP has exerted a
significant impact on a variety of educational policies and practices in both
North America and the United Kingdom (e.g. Cline & Frederickson, 1996).
Specific ways in which educators' misunderstanding of the nature of language
proficiency have contributed to the creation of academic difficulties among
bilingual students have been highlighted by the distinction. At a theoretical
level, however, the distinction is likely to remain controversial, reflecting
the fact that there is no cross-disciplinary consensus regarding the nature of
language proficiency and its relationship to academic achievement.
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Jim Cummins teaches in the Department of Curriculum,
Teaching, and Learning of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the
University of Toronto.
His research has focused on the education of bilingual students and
the possibilities and pitfalls of technology in education.