James Cummins’ Theory of Second Language Acquisition

We continue our examination of some of the more groundbreaking and essential theories on the subject of second language acquisition with the work of James Cummins. He believed that there are marked differences between social interaction and academic teaching as a method for acquiring and comprehending a second language. His theory can be broken down into two different aspects that are both necessary for learners to have a confident grasp of the language they are trying to learn, Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Cummins felt that the cognitive, not the behavioral, approach is the more effective way to learn a new language and being bilingual can help students excel in their studies. This is particularly true with second language learners who already have a firm grasp of their native language, as he believed it provides them with the necessary foundation for learning the second.

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)

This aspect supports and encourages natural communication in social situations. This form of the language is practiced outside of the classroom, be it inside or outside of school. It can take place at recess, the lunch room, during sports and other extra-curricular activities, and any other social events in the personal lives of learners. Communicative interaction is conducted in a social context, and it’s often more familiar and less nuanced than academic communication. According to Cummins, these skills are in full bloom between six months and two years after coming to a new country. The biggest concern with BICS lies within the falsehood that a learner has become proficient in the language when they are able to demonstrate a good grasp of social language. This is not the case.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)

This aspect puts a greater focus on the learner’s ability to demonstrate proficiency in the academic sense. CALP refers to the learner’s ability to read, write, and communicate on a level effective enough to exceed in their academic pursuits. But the important thing to keep in mind is that it goes beyond those basic attributes of the language, extending to how they use it to make decisions, comprehend learning, compare, contrast, evaluate, and classify their lessons in the classroom. Social interaction skills are insufficient to prove that a learner is academically proficient in the language as well.

Common Underlying Proficiency

Cummins believed that if a learner has already learned a language, namely their native tongue, then they are readily equipped to learn a second. This previous knowledge serves to support their understanding of basic skills and concepts related to language and, thus, a second language should theoretically come easier to them, as would a third or even fourth come even easier as they progress. This common underlying proficiency gives every learner the ability to learn new languages!

Lectura Books offers award-winning bilingual books that are a great tool for English Language Learners. The books are written in both English and Spanish and focus on important vocabulary. This will help ELL students succeed with language acquisition. If you’re a parent or know of a parent who is interested in teaching an infant/ toddler to be bilingual, Baby Board Books are a great choice.

Katherine Del MonteJames Cummins’ Theory of Second Language Acquisition