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What’sa matta wif my Enlish?

An investigation into why academic English is different
By Mia de Jager.

Recently, I was standing in an ATM queue on campus when I overheard a group of students talking, “I’m sitting in the lecture and I know he’s speaking English up there, but I don’t understand nothing.” 

This is a good description of what many first year students who come to English speaking universities experience. The type of English they are used to speaking at school and at home is very different to the English they need in the academic environment. These “Englishes” may as well be different languages. This situation is not unique to South Africa. English second-language speakers who need to study in English in many other parts of the world  experience exactly the same problem, so much so that the English we use socially (or in music or on TV) and the English we need at university has been carefully studied in order to identify their differences.

The theorist Jim Cummins came up with a way of describing these differences. He said that the English we speak socially (and generally students’ English level at high school) is at a Basic Interpersonal Communications Skills (BICS) level, whereas the English we need at university is at a Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) level. This is known as the BICS and CALP theory. 

BICS is a social form of language and is largely dependent on context for meaning. This means that a person who is listening can get a fair idea of what someone is trying to say without the communicator having to speak every word or complete every sentence. The communicator can use repetition, body language and other non-verbal cues to get their meaning across. Imagine someone is trying to explain what a spanner is: “He used this thing…like a claw with a screw on the end…that you turn. Man, what’s it called?”  

It’s important to remember that Cummins’ original idea was that BICS was more of a spoken code. We apply this theory somewhat differently these days, if we think about how the written form of the language, e.g. texting, has changed. The use of lowercase letters, memes and emoji’s, have made “written” English communication much less formal. This message can be understood in virtually any language: 

CALP, on the other hand, is context free. Academic English needs to be able to stand by itself on the page. We need to be able to read it and get all the information necessary to understand what the writer means purely from the words, punctuation, grammar and sentence structure used. The register is formal and it requires a different vocabulary. Students are often not familiar with this type of language, and need help to learn it.

The problem is exacerbated by lecturers and tutors who cannot identify if a student is struggling with the differences between conversational fluency (BICS) and academic proficiency (CALP). If a student speaks English, surely they should be able to write it? The truth is that often second-language English students need carefully guided assistance in order to see the difference between this conversational language and the language required in the academic environment. Students need professionally- trained English teachers to help them learn how to effectively use this language. Let Wits Language School help you do exactly that.