Piercing the Veil Part II: Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

This is my journey in acquiring Swahili. It  reminds me of my previous journeys of learning Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Italian. The process of learning a second or subsequent language mirrors the acquisition of the first language in many respects yet there are differences.

I am educated and my educational experience  or fund of knowledge has to be accessed in order to learn a language effectively and efficiently. Does that mean that acquiring subsequent languages get any easier over time? I can’t say that it does because the emotions  involved  in learning a language are the same. The expectations for a mature language learner are different and the learning environment  is different for the mature language learner is . Mature learners have access to cognitive academic language in their primary language which needs utilized to learn and interact with people in  subsequent languages.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) consists of language necessary  for success in school. CALP involves the language of books, math, science, and social studies. CALP consist of  complex abstract words with fewer visual clues to support meaning. CALP involves higher order thinking skills  achieved over time through meaningful language, literacy and content instruction at appropriate stages of language acquisition.

So how does one acquire CALP in subsequent language? The same way that you acquire it in the primary language .Build on a foundation of basic words,  read and learn how the language is arranged. Communicate with others using academic language, complete workbooks and arrange words in independent writing assignments.  Use computer programs and  listen to the recordings and notice how words are put together.

I taught myself to read at four years old.  I have taught myself most subject that I have  learned since. When I was in school, I read all of my textbook and completed all of the chapter tests in my textbook by the end of the first week of school. I didn’t participate much in my first year of high school. My grades reflected my lack of participation.   I decided to make up for the mediocre grades of that year by becoming a straight A student as I had been in the past.

I selected  classes by the texts  and my likelihood of  an A. If  I could teach myself and didn’t need a great teacher, I took the course. If  I needed a teacher to learn the material and there was a teacher who could support my efforts, I took the class. If  I needed a teacher to complete the class, and a good teacher was not available, I visited three libraries. If I could find the materials to teach myself in the library, I took the class. If I could not find the materials in the three libraries, I did not take the class. I graduated at the top of my class.  So it worked for high school.

Upon entering college, I realized my disservice to myself. Practice and repetition create prior knowledge.  Prior knowledge allows one to acquire new information.  I skipped some subjects, I didn’t have the prior knowledge needed to be successful at the college level. But I was adverse to getting a poor grade in order to increase my knowledge. So I would go to the bookstore and buy the text and read it before enrolling in the class and complete  many of the activities  before enrolling in the class. My aversion to failing was interfering with my growth. I enrolled in the class at another college so that I would never see the mediocre grade.

This aversion to failure has plagued me throughout my life and has been an asset as well as a liability. It interferes with my acquisition of learning a language because I refuse to participate in activities where I might fail. I won’t allow the computer program to score my correct responses until I am sure that I can receive 90%. So I don’t practice as much as I need to practice. I am embarrassed about my writing skills at this level and so I don’t complete exercises.  I don’t like to grade them and  that I have missed more than I have hit correctly. I find failure painful.

Calps are my strength. I teach, research, write and speak. Words are my best friend. I need to acquire BICS Basic Interpersonal Communication skills and Calp’s Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency at the same time in order to effectively acquire any  language I need to be able the use the strengths that I have acquired mastering academic content to learn new languages.

African cultures are  social  and  highly interdependent . Greetings are a crucial part of the culture. The kinship  ties  are very strong. The  African language materials developed in Africa  reflect this cultural bias. The books require lots of memorization of phrases in isolation  so mature language learners struggle.

I need to understand how the language fits together,  the patterns,  and   exceptions. Experimentation, trial and error remain crucial elements in learning a language. Experimentation means lots of public failure.  I Venture out of my cave and make lots of mistakes. I am making them hard and fast. I can’t worry about failure or become embarrassed. Learning Swahili awaits me.

The Swahili in Kenya differs from the Swahili in Tanzania. My books are written by Tanzanians. I have found Tanzanians who are willing to allow me to make mistakes and continue to interact with me. The Kenyans reacted very negatively to my attempts putting together new sentences and phrases to communicate or they simply ignore me. So I take refuge in Tanzanian Swahili and practice three hours a day.  Build on my strength academic language and struggle less with the social.  Learn the Academic language and rules.  Make lots of mistakes. Combine everything that I know and use it often.  “Fail forward” as quickly as I can. The pain only lasts a short time and then I can communicate . I know enough to make plenty errors. The veil has been pierced.

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6 responses to “Piercing the Veil Part II: Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

  1. Congrats on learning a new language, I hope it opens new doors for you!

  2. Very interesting article.
    Congratulations on your language achievements and your mission.

    I’m learning Spanish using the Pimsleur Method – listening to Spanish speakers having a conversation in their language and I practice 30 minutes a day. It’s based on the way children learn to speak any language. And I’m learning quickly, easily and it’s fun.

    I applaud you for your strengths. And for failing forward.

  3. Early in my career, I accepted a Corporate Ambassador assignment in Mexico with only a high school level second language competency in Spanish. This basic foundation may be what you refer to as CALP, but it is not what made me fluent.

    Six weeks after my arrival, I was in an unexpected role of delviering classroom management training to a group of 30 trainees – all in Spanish.
    I firmly believe that my willingness to make a fool of myself, fail miserably, and ask for help when needed are what resulted in full fluency in three months. I do not believe I could have achieved this academically, full cultural immersion was the key for me.

    I commend you for leaving your “aversion to failure” comfort zone. You, too, can succeed in learning a second language by “failing foward” as you put it!

    • Wow! I appreciate your bravery. I still hesitate to speak in front of groups in any language but my own. I have done it of course but I am always nervous. It does depend on your personality. I learn a lot from reading and then I practice based on what I have learned.

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