Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), as proposed by Jim Cummins in 1979, are categories of linguistic proficiency. BICS is the language that learners use in their everyday, real-world interactions, while CALP is essentially the discourse of the classroom. Cummins writes that the distinction between these two areas is an important one, and he provides the following example to clarify their primary differences:
“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, in second language acquisition contexts, immigrant children often acquire peer-appropriate conversational fluency in English within about 2 years but it requires considerably longer (5-10 years) to catch up academically in English” (Collier, 1987; Cummins, 1984).
Thus, there are clear differences in acquisition and developmental patterns between conversational language and academic language, or BICS and CALP” (2).
The distinction between these areas of proficiency is also useful because it adds complexity to the false dichotomy of “proficient” vs. “non-proficient” in second language acquisition.
That being said, according to Maren Aukerman, Cummins’ model of BICS and CALP is not always helpful, but in fact creates a new false dichotomy that “may do a disservice to children…by categorizing them as unready to learn” (626). She goes on to say,
“ELL children have the tough job of figuring out what they are being asked to do by their teachers, and they can best make sense of that through recontextualizing activities and ideas in school, that is, by making sense of what they are learning through the lens of what is already familiar, by themselves actively creating a unique context for what is new to them out of their multiple, infinitely varied experiences in other situations” (627).
In other words, the separation of BICS and CALP might work in theory, but in practice instructors can do more in the classroom to use the learners’ experiences with BICS to reinforce CALP.
Miller, Hannah, et al. “BICS and CALP.” Prezi, 15 Apr. 2016, https://prezi.com/rqxwtctl4jvv/bics-and-calp/.
Aukerman, Maren. “A Culpable CALP: Rethinking the Conversational/Academic Language Proficiency Distinction in Early Literacy Instruction.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 60, no. 7, 2007, pp. 626–635. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20204516.
Cummins, Jim. “BICS and CALP: Clarifying the Distinction.” ERIC, 1991, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED438551.pdf.