What Should Parents of Bilingual Children Know about BICS and CALP Language?

Most of bilingual children start to speak fluent English withing 2-3 years of exposure to the language. Teachers in P1-P3 usually report rapid progress in children’s English language development. Also bilingual children appear to learn basic reading skills (decoding) as quickly as monolingual children.

Yet, many bilingual children experience serious problems with reading and learning in P4-P5.
Parents usually don’t get it why the child who was doing very well at in P3, suddenly starts having problems.

To understand the source of these problems, it is important for parents to know the difference between Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) in English language.

BICS is a communicative or conversational language a child learns relatively quickly and largely independently within 2-3 years of immersion to English. Since BICS is learnt through interactions, discussions and play with friends, it is sometimes called a ‘playground language’.

It is also rather pejoratively called a ‘survival English’. This can wrongly imply that it is an English of lesser value.
Yet BICS is indispensable for bilingual children’s success at school since it forms a cornerstone for more advanced English language skills. Therefore, BICS should be never ignored, depreciated and taken for granted.

Children with well-developed BICS in English demonstrate effortless fluency, mastery of colloquial vocabulary and local accent. Such features are frequently beyond the reach of their English speaking non-native parents.

When bilingual children master BICS,  existing gaps in English language proficiency might be imperceptible.
This can lull both parents and teachers in dangerous sense of complacency.

Although rapid development of BICS language suggests that bilingual children absorb a new language like ‘sponges’,  it is often a misleading impression. Native monolingual children before the age of 3 might hear between 13-45 million words in English. Although bilingual children do perform little wonders every day, it would be naïve to expect miracles.  Young bilinguals do not to close the gaps with monolingual children during 2-3 years of exposure to English language despite well-developed BICS.

Although BICS knowledge is necessary, it is insufficient to succeed at school. To do well at schools children need to develop more advanced CALP language. Children need to be able to compare, classify, synthesise and evaluate in English. Children need to be also able to comprehend written sources of English. CALP is frequently called a ‘classroom’, ‘academic’ or ‘school’ language.  It is not the sort of language children can learn in playground. Children need to be purposefully instructed to achieve this level of proficiency in English. Learning CALP takes approximately 5-8 years. Most of bilingual children require sustained, intensive parental engagement to develop CALP.

That is the language bilingual children often struggle with. Although learning by children BICS in English in 2-3 years is an outstanding achievement, it is clear that actually learning CALP presents an enormous challenge  for bilingual children.

Since academic language (CALP) begins to play a prominent role between P4-P5 when children ‘stop learning to read’ and ‘start reading to learn’, it is the moment bilingual children start having difficulties at school. 

Main points for parents:

  • don’t judge your child’s English on the basis of fluency or accent
  • most bilingual children (but not all) develop communicative English  (BICS) independently in 2-3 years
  •  the real test of language competency is the knowledge of CALP.
  • academic language (CALP) is the main source of problems in schools
  • CALP requires purposeful and systematic instruction which takes year