Challenges Faced by Learners Taught in a Language Other than Their Mother Tongue: Insights from BICS and CALP

With reference to Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), we explore why learners who are taught in a language other than their mother tongue, experience challenges to learn in school.

Challenges Faced by Learners Taught in a Language Other than Their Mother Tongue: Insights from BICS and CALP


Learners who are taught in a language other than their mother tongue face significant challenges in school due to the complexities involved in acquiring both Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). The development of BICS, which is essential for everyday verbal interactions and social integration, can be hampered by cultural barriers, emotional strain, and the potential for social isolation. Meanwhile, the acquisition of CALP, critical for understanding and expressing complex academic concepts, imposes a high cognitive load as students must learn subject matter content and a new language concurrently. This dual burden can lead to misunderstandings about a student’s academic abilities and hinder the transfer of existing knowledge and skills from their native language to the new language. These factors collectively create a challenging educational landscape for students taught in a language different from their mother tongue.

The challenges experienced by learners who are taught in a language other than their mother tongue can be profound and multifaceted. Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) are two key frameworks that illuminate the complexities associated with language development and educational success. Understanding these frameworks can shed light on the struggles faced by students taught in a second language and offer pathways for more effective educational interventions.

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)

BICS refers to the everyday language skills needed for basic verbal interactions. These skills are often the first to be acquired and are generally easier to develop compared to CALP. BICS is the language of social interaction and includes conversational fluency acquired through daily interactions. Learners who are taught in a language different from their mother tongue may initially struggle to develop BICS in the classroom setting for various reasons:

Cultural Barriers

Children from different cultural backgrounds may find it hard to understand everyday idiomatic expressions, cultural references, or even the ‘social rules’ of communication that are second nature to native speakers.

Emotional Strain

Learning to interact in a new language can be emotionally taxing, leading to feelings of frustration and inadequacy that may hinder academic performance.

Isolation

A lack of BICS can lead to social isolation, as students may find it difficult to form friendships and social networks that are essential for emotional well-being and educational support.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)

CALP, on the other hand, involves the language skills needed to understand and express more complex ideas and concepts, particularly in academic settings. CALP takes longer to acquire and is essential for succeeding in school. Learners taught in a second language often face significant challenges in developing CALP.

Cognitive Load

Learning subject matter and a new language simultaneously places a high cognitive load on students, making it harder to excel at either.

Misinterpretation of Academic Ability

Teachers and peers may mistake language struggles for a lack of intellectual capability, leading to reduced expectations and possibly resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic failure.

Incomplete Knowledge Transfer

Students with strong CALP in their mother tongue may find it difficult to transfer these skills to a second language, leading to gaps in understanding and application of complex academic concepts.

Implications for Educators and Policymakers

Understanding the different challenges posed by BICS and CALP is crucial for developing effective educational policies and instructional strategies. Tailoring language programs that are sensitive to these different dimensions of language acquisition can provide students with a more equitable opportunity for academic success.

Educational strategies may include:

  • Dual-language programs to support both BICS and CALP
  • Cultural competence training for educators
  • Extra-curricular language support services

By acknowledging and addressing the difficulties related to BICS and CALP, educators can better support learners who are navigating the intricate process of acquiring a new language while also striving for academic success.

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