Over the years, my thinking about second language acquisition has been stimulated in fresh ways by the theories of Jim Cummins. As I have grappled with practical issues in the classroom and faced new challenges in my career, I have often found myself in an intricate dance with Cummins’ ideas.
As a high school ESL teacher thirty years ago in a public school district in Virginia, I struggled to understand my students — a mix of refugees, economic immigrants, and the children of international scholars at a nearby university. Most of these teenagers had been suddenly deposited in an alien environment – a suburban American high school – after years of schooling in their native languages and home cultures.
At the time, Jim Cummins’ concepts of BICS and CALP (which he later described as “conversational fluency” and “academic language proficiency”) clarified why many of my students eventually spoke English like their American friends but remained far below grade level in academic vocabulary, reading, and writing. Looking carefully at minority language students in Canada, Cummins had determined that children were capable of acquiring social fluency in a second language through 1-2 years of immersion, while they typically needed 5-8 years to achieve grade-level competency in CALP.
His ideas matched my daily realities so well that he caused me to dramatically change my approach to ESL instruction. Each year, I focused more and more on academic content and vocabulary. And with students from 18 language backgrounds in a 25-person class, I had to teach creatively. Cummins’ ideas about context-embedded instruction challenged me to make language comprehensible through visuals, realia, and concrete experiences.
As a follower of the Master Teacher, I felt called to teach these immigrant students because of the Biblical mandate to care for the “alien in your midst” (Exodus 22:21). I wanted to welcome them and, through excellent English instruction, give them tools to be successful in American life.
But something important was missing from my approach.
During the past 15 years, I have been researching bilingual education programs in the U.S. and bilingual schooling movements throughout Asia and Latin America. Much of my research has been related to the development of a textbook series to teach the English language to young children (ages 4-12) outside of the U.S.
Through my work with bilingual schooling, I have rediscovered the most significant areas of Jim Cummins’ work: his research on bilingualism and his advocacy for multilingual educational programs. His concept of a Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP) and his Threshold Hypothesis (immortalized in his “iceberg diagram”) have influenced a generation of bilingual educators throughout the world.
Many Christian schools outside of the United States seek to give their students a wonderful gift: a high level of bilingualism and biliteracy. While this movement is growing globally, the U.S. seems to be headed in the opposite direction by promoting what Cummins calls “subtractive bilingualism”. My ESL classes in Virginia were (by necessity) subtractive rather than additive, replacing one language with another. One encouraging sign, however, is the rise of dual-language instruction in some American school districts – a program design which is conceptually rooted in the theories of Jim Cummins.
The Gospels hint that our Master Teacher was multilingual. His home language was likely to be Aramaic, but he spoke fluently in Hebrew with the Jewish rabbis and the Samaritan woman (Luke 2:39-52, John 4:4-26) and he conversed in Greek (or possibly Latin) with the Roman Centurion and Pontius Pilate (Matthew 8:5-13, John 18:28-38). Jesus’ communication was in the heart languages of the people he encountered. My reading of Jim Cummins’ theories on bilingualism has pushed me beyond my early years as an ESL instructor to appreciate the power and beauty of bilingualism.