Being a student at an international school presents one with great opportunities to learn English really well. This is often the reason why parents enroll their children in these kinds of schools. However, the results are often mixed; not all students achieve the same levels of fluency and academic success. Why is that?
Many non-English-speaking parents have talked about their frustration of not being able to help their children at home. They want to support the language development but are restricted to paying tutors or sending their children to training centers. While there is nothing wrong with these solutions, there is another one that is too often overlooked: native language engagement.
What does this mean? First of all, one needs to understand that ‘language’ is a catch-all for a number of different forms of communication. For example, the words, expressions, and syntax used on the playground, in the hallways of the school, and with peers are quite different from what is used in the classroom. The former or more socially focused form of communication is called Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills or BICS (Cummins, 1981, 1996). Its main feature is that since most of its context is embedded—in other words its topics are usually self-evident, it makes very few demands on the cognitive ability of its users. The language of instruction in the classroom however is not always ‘self-evident’; it uses a much more complex and demanding vocabulary and syntax. This type of communication is called Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency or CALP (Cummins).
CALP is the medium used to come up with answers that require arguments. These arguments in turn are based on logic and rhetoric, in other words cognition. Proper mastery allows students to compare, classify, synthesize, infer, and evaluate classroom content that is not directly related to their social comfort zone. Most of the language problems in an international school occur because all those involved do not sufficiently distinguish between BICS and CALP. Often, students, ‘BICS’ fluent in social English, struggle in the much more demanding and different ‘CALPS’ classroom. Neither they nor their parents understand why seemingly near native-fluent speakers don’t do as well as expected. The students spend countless time and efforts mastering endless vocabulary lists yet the results are disappointing. Why?
Students in international schools, grades 4 and up, often unwittingly try to use BICS language and strategies in the CALPS classroom. They do this is because they are not fluent, not expert enough in the more intricate complexities demanded by academic English. Paradoxically, a reason for this lies in the lack of access to academic language complexity in their own native language. International school families, at home, focus so much on English language acquisition that they often neglect more formalized native language development. So where’s the good news?
Linguistics has proved that the cognitive foundation for native language academic literacy (CALPS) is one and the same as that of any foreign languages you know (Thomas & Collier, 1998). In other words, if you can cognitively argue a point well in Korean, you can cognitively do as well in English, or Chinese. And it is the lack of exposure to native language cognitive literacy that is hampering our students. What can we do to help?
The solution is uniquely simple: help your children get exposure to this cognitive literacy by engaging them, at home, in discussions about art, politics, history etc in their native language. Ask them to read short passages from famous native-culture works of literature and then discuss these. Take a current affairs event and ask your child to take or defend a position contrary to yours. Read a newspaper headline and ask them to predict or infer possible consequences. Ask them to give you two advantages and two disadvantages of, e.g., using computers to do homework. The possibilities are legion, and most of this can be done regularly at the dinner table. If your children are young, read them a bedtime story but ask them to come up with a different ending, prompting ever further explanations. The short of it is that parents can actively support the academic development of their children even if they are studying in a different language.
Science is on your side, why not have some fun at the Sunday dinner table and watch your children gradually best you in an argument. They’ll love you for it. And if you want more ideas, talk to your child’s homeroom teachers. They’d love to hear from you.
Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education, Office of Bilingual Education.
Thomas, W.P., & Collier, V.P. (1998). Two languages are better than one. Educational Leadership, 12/97-1/98, 23-26
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