Wait, what? I uttered this in our office the other day and everyone laughed.
To help you understand why this could remotely be funny while not putting you to sleep instantly, here’s a quick, so-don’t-stop-reading, crash course on learning a language.
BICS, or Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills, is better known as “playground” language skills. In a high school, it’s the wassup in the hall and speaking with friends in the cafe. It can seem that a person is understanding everything you say because they can carry on a social conversation with you. Someone hearing a student carry on a conversation sprinkled with slang can assume he/she is a fluent speaker.
CALP, or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, is the ability to use the language proficiently in an academic setting. Like school. Uh oh.
BICS comes waaaaay before CALP.
Still with me? What drives me crazy is that even in the teaching profession, some educators don’t realize, or forget, that what a kid can say will be very different from their ability to express themselves using critical thinking in the areas of reading and writing that are essential for success in high school and college.
Which brings me to our Spanish/not Spanish speaking students. We have a number of students…a large number of students…at our high school, for whom Spanish is their second language. They are from Ecuador and are native Kichwa speakers. Every once in a while we get new students who don’t speak a word of Spanish. Usually, though, they learned Spanish in school but were raised in a Kichwa speaking household. Or their grandparents were Kichwa speakers so they were raised by parents whose Spanish was heavily influenced by Kichwa. Most have some Spanish skills. Their skills range from understanding a little spoken Spanish to speaking quite well in Spanish. BICS
Academically they struggle. CALP
The comment I made in our office was in reference to a student who wanted to be in a different English class but didn’t yet have the academic language necessary for that level.
And now you can understand why it was a completely true, yet nerdy comment and everyone laughed at me.
© 2016 Barbara H. Knowles
And this is why it is so frustrating that we have educators who are Spanish speakers but don’t understand the difference between BICS and CALP. A Kichwa student may have a conversation in Spanish with another person and that colleague will tell me that I’m wrong. That this or that student is fluent in Spanish.
No, they are wrong. The student may have adequate social language skills in Spanish, but sometimes these kids come back to me and tell me that they just talked with so-and-so but they didn’t get everything that was said to them. They may be in Spanish Speaker content area classes such as math and science but not understand everything that is taught in Spanish nor how to read and write in this content area well in Spanish.
Or parents will call me because they had a conversation or a meeting with someone at the school and while the parents kept saying “Sí, sí, entiendo,” they didn’t actually understand and want me to explain what they need to do or know.
My wish is for it not to be such an uphill battle for these kids. My wish is that all the adults with whom these students and their families have to communicate, understand that Spanish isn’t their first language and to respect that. And understand that their academic difficulties in high school are in a large part due to not having academic skills in Spanish. Their BICS are okay. Their CALP?
© 2016 Barbara H. Knowles