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What is BICS?
BICS is the acronym for Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, as discussed by Jim Cummins. BICS are very different from CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). One can sum up the two definitions by simply stating that BICS is the ability to express social and survival language, while CALP is the development of specialized, specific vocabulary intended for school or the workplace. A language learner will not work their way up to CALP before they have had success with BICS.
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Does Having BICS Make You Fluent?
Obviously when a person learns a new language, their ability to express themselves using BICS will be developed first. The ability to make small talk or conversation in English or another second language is often confused with being fluent and proficient. However, try asking new language learners to discuss a certain subject or theme that requires specialized vocabulary like Science or History and you will find an entirely different situation. The development of advanced or subject-specific language is not a natural process and requires study and effort to learn. This is why sometimes when we hear language learners being successful in small talk, we assume they can communicate on a deeper level as well. This is not really the case. They just have had a lot of opportunity to communicate orally with others.
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Settings for BICS Development
Students of language, whether they be children or adults will develop the skills to speak about what comes naturally first. They will learn to fulfill their basic needs like finding a restroom or learning how to ask about food and drinks or getting directions. These skills will likely grow by communicating with peers in settings like playgrounds, restaurants, and stores where the person is forced to speak to get what they want. Even in their native language, this is the vocabulary and structure we first learn when developing speech as a baby or toddler.
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BICS Development Activities
Some ways to practice and develop BICS could be by setting up situations in the classroom in which communicating in BICS is necessary. For example, younger students should have centers set up in the classroom which promote oral communication such as a home center or centers in which partnered work is necessary and children can complete tasks of their liking. They are more motivated to learn when they have the power of choice. Having centers with room for a few children at a time like blocks or water play can help encourage communication here.
You can set up games or vignettes for ESL or other language learners in which practicing incorporating BICS is part of the fun. You can set up a restaurant scene with menus students have made or ones you bring in from restaurants and have them practice ordering food. A grocery store can be set up by bringing in empty food boxes and a cash register for students to practice holding conversations about numbers, money and food. Finally you can play a game where students earn points by including phrases or questions you have chosen in advance into their conversations. They can also get bonus points when they are ‘caught’ using this language during their school day.
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After Mastering BICS
Building BICS means building confidence in second language learners. Once they feel comfortable enough to communicate in BICS with others, without the fear of making mistakes, they will feel more confident to try to use and learn CALP as well, the next step to becoming truly fluent and proficient at a language.