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The concept of common underlying proficiency in teaching a language

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2010

Автор: Васютина К.В.

The educational market all over the world and especially in Europe grows, and so does the importance of second language proficiency. Universities interested in attracting international students need to have an assurance that those students are proficient in the main language of instruction. This article is a survey of the scientific thought on the concept of common proficiency underlying two and more languages knowledge.

The word proficiency means a good standard of ability and skill. (Longman Dictionary, 2003) Language proficiency or linguistic proficiency is the ability of an individual to speak or perform in an acquired language. (Longman Dictionary, 2003) There are two basic proficiency theories developed by different scholars. They are Common underlying proficiency (CUP) and Separate underlying proficiency (SUP). Canadian linguist James Cummins advanced the theory in the 1980s that persons who are learning a second language are not faced with a totally unmapped territory. They possess a common framework of language structures and functions that can be described as a common underlying proficiency drawn from the person’s knowledge of one language to help him or her learn the second or additional language. The theory holds that there is an interdependence factor between languages. In short, that to the extent that instruction in the first or native language (L1) is effective in promoting proficiency in L1, transfer of this proficiency to another language (L2) will occur provided there is adequate exposure and motivation to learn L2. Bilingual or multilingual individuals who have meaningful exposure and experience with two languages in school or another environment, develop common underlying proficiency (CUP) skills which enable the development of cognitive and academic skills in both languages. With enough time and good instruction, the individuals’ two languages are interdependent and come to exist within one central processing system. The development of CUP skills assists with transferring of cognitive, academic and linguistic competencies from the L1 to another language. Based on the CUP, the student would transfer the concept to the second language and only be required to learn the “label” in the second language for that concept.

In the same way as children learn their first language, sequential bilingual learners must also learn how to use their newly acquired language accurately and appropriately. Although the process of language learning may be similar, there are also differences. For example, bilingual learners address the process of learning another language already possessing knowledge of a linguistic system, its structures and rules. In addition, sequential bilingual learners start learning their second language at different ages, rather than from birth, and will be able to use different learning strategies.

Second language development would appear to proceed in an orderly fashion. Researchers have discovered that there is a fairly common sequence of acquisition for second language learners across a range of languages and contexts. What is not known is exactly what aspects of the second language are learned in what sequence. However it is known that some aspects are learned when there is a perceived need by the learner and some items can be learned in no particular sequence. Other research has suggested that there is a developmental sequence which precludes the early learning of certain items. Second language learners will demonstrate some of the stages of first language development. For example, they may go through a period when a rule is generalised to all instances. However, the rate of acquisition and the level of proficiency achieved in second language learning will depend upon the individual learner.

The popular belief that younger children have an advantage over adults in developing bilingually is not necessarily true. Early acquisition of the speech sound system of a language may result in a native-like pronunciation and the impression of fluency, but older learners may have an advantage in terms of increased metalinguistic awareness that enables them to learn the new language more quickly. For the young child, bilingual development is taking place alongside conceptual development and learning about the world. For older learners who have greater knowledge and understanding, it is the learning of new labels for objects, ideas and concepts already known.

As they learn the new language, second language learners incorporate the new linguistic input into their existing model of the language. There are many aspects of language that are common. For example all languages have ways of denoting time, of indicating actions and actors. Languages do this with different vocabularies and often with different grammars, but all languages are rule-governed. Part of the process of language acquisition involves the discovery and application of these rules. 'Interlanguage' is the term used to describe the language that learners produce as they learn the second language. It is also used to describe the evolving development of the learner's knowledge and use of the second language as they become increasingly proficient. It will change as the learner learns more and incorporates new linguistic knowledge into existing knowledge. Error analysis appears to suggest that the majority of interlingual errors are developmental and a sign of progress.

Learners and their learning strategies will change over time. A five year old will have a different language learning profile and language learning strategies than a fifteen year old. For bilingual learners, their first language knowledge will be helpful in the acquisition of the second language. The extent of this help will be dependent upon their proficiency in their first language, their age and other factors.

Cummins (1984 and 2000) also argues for a common underlying proficiency or interdependence hypothesis, in which cross-lingual proficiencies can promote the development of cognitive, academic skills. Common underlying proficiency refers to the interdependence of concepts, skills and linguistic knowledge found in a central processing system. Cummins states that cognitive and literacy skills established in the mother tongue or L1 will transfer across languages. This is often presented visually as two icebergs representing the two languages which overlap and share, underneath the water line, a common underlying proficiency or operating system. Both languages are outwardly distinct but are supported by shared concepts and knowledge derived from learning and experience and the cognitive and linguistic abilities of the learner.

This representation also demonstrates one view of how linguistic knowledge is stored in the brain. One way of thinking of this is to consider bilingual speakers as having separately stored proficiencies in each language, and this may include pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar in the working memory, which in turn, have access to long-term memory storage that is not language specific. In other words, the use of the first or second language is informed by the working memory, but the concepts are stored as underlying proficiency.

Cummins also describes language proficiency in terms of surface and deeper levels of thinking skills. He argues that the deeper levels of cognitive processing such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation are necessary to academic progress. He distinguishes these aspects of proficiency from what he describes as more explicit or superficial realisations of linguistic and cognitive processing. Cummins proposes a minimum threshold of first language cognitive/academic development necessary for success in second language learning. Cummins also suggests that if the threshold of cognitive proficiency is not achieved, the learner may have difficulties achieving bilingual proficiency.

This representation of bilingual proficiency would also suggest that continued conceptual and linguistic development in the first language would help second language learners in their learning of the second language. So the continued support of the first language whilst learning the second language would be beneficial for cognitive development as well as for other socio-cultural reasons. In his later work, Cummins (2000) presents the work of many other researchers which support this hypothesis and the claim that bilingualism and continued development in the first language enhances metalinguistic skills and development in proficiency in the second language.

The separate underlying proficiency (SUP) premise suggests that no such relationship exists between the first and other languages and that languages work independently in the central processing system. Bilingual individuals would require two separate components for language processing. The SUP theory has for the most part not been supported within bilingual education or bilingualism research. A bilingual individual does not need to wait until a certain level of L1 proficiency is achieved to begin acquiring skills in the second language, due to the central processing system. An important implication for bilingual education is that students with conceptual knowledge in their first language do not have to re-learn the same concepts in a second language.

Within the bilingual proficiency framework, Cummins indicated a distinction between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). Language proficiency used in everyday communication or informal settings is defined as BICS. CALP was conceptualized as language proficiency needed for decontextualized academic situations, or the language skills needed in the classroom. The iceberg metaphor has been used to describe BICS (surface level) and CALP (deeper levels) in terms of language proficiency. Cummins expanded the framework by explaining the range of contextual support and the degree of cognitive involvement required within a communication task along both of these continuums. Academic critiques notwithstanding, the connection between language proficiency of the CALP variety and academic achievement has been widely accepted by school personnel who work with culturally and linguistically diverse students in many different capacities (Cummins, J., 1980).

The threshold hypothesis assumes that a child needs to achieve a certain level of proficiency or competence in the first or second language to take advantage of the benefits of bilingualism. A minimum threshold needs to be achieved if there are to be any benefits from bilingualism, and this hypothesis posits that if there is a low level of competence in both languages there may be negative consequences. Sometimes this has been referred to as semi-lingualism, but this term and description is not often used nowadays. It would seem that there needs to be a minimum level of linguistic and conceptual knowledge in the first language to successfully add a second and develop bilingually. At the upper threshold, 'additive bilingualism' occurs when 'balanced bilinguals' have age appropriate competence in both languages. This conceptualization of bilingualism is often depicted as a steps in a ladder or floors in a house. This threshold hypothesis cannot be defined in absolute terms, rather it is a theoretical description, but it can help in explaining the development of bilingual learners. It also supports the arguments for the benefits of additive bilingualism and bilingual education.

There are several implications and benefits of additive bilingualism for teaching and learning. For example, bilingual education may provide the greatest support for bilingual learners in the development of their second or additional language. It is important that new input is connected to the learner's previous knowledge, including linguistic, conceptual and learned knowledge. It would seem that additive bilingualism has positive consequences for learners' metalinguistic development, learning of additional languages and more generally, for learners' verbal cognitive operations. The threshold hypothesis also suggests that both languages must be given an opportunity to develop if there is to be a long-term positive impact. Additive bilingualism brings with it many positive attributes that can enable learners' linguistic and academic development.

Individuals acquiring a second language are said to develop BICS within two to three years in which they may be able to produce single word or short phrase responses in social situations or informal settings (e.g. playground, grocery store, and cafeteria). CALP on the other hand has been determined to require five to seven years of educational exposure for development. Individuals with CALP skills are able to analyze information, provide conclusions and make inferences about academically challenging (decontextualized) material and tasks. School personnel are cautioned not to make instructional decisions based on a student’s demonstrated conversational or surface level language skills (BICS) (Cummins, J., 1980).

Different universities assess the level of English proficiency according to the proficiency frameworks developed by the educational ministries of their countries. The challenges of developing these complex frameworks are not merely technical or logistical: they concern how to design tests and interpretations which enable valid and useful comparison across such widely differing languages and learner groups, and above all how to do this in a way which impacts positively on learning. Among other potential uses of English proficiency standards are creation of an integrated and aligned system of curriculum, instruction, and assessment crafted specifically for English language learners; stimulation of collaboration among teachers and coordination of effort in educating English language learners; providing a universal, comprehensive description of the second language acquisition process as the pathway to the attainment of English proficiency standards and school success.

In conclusion we would like to say that the theory of CUP looks more solid than that of SUP. Therefore we would recommend having learners study a language consciously and transfer their abilities in the L1 like reasoning, analyzing, reading strategies, etc. to L2. We believe that conscious learning is especially important for the students of Translation Skills major as the deep knowledge of their native tongue transferred to foreign language will realize in quality, adequate translation or interpreting.


1. Bialystok, E. (2001) Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy and Cognition. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

2. Cline, T. & Frederickson, N. (Eds.) (1996) Curriculum Related Assessment, Cummins and Bilingual Children. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters

3. Cummins, J. (1984) Bilingualism and special education. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters.

4. Cummins, J. (2000) Language, Power and Pegagogy. Clevedon : Multimlingual Matters.

5. Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research. 49 (2), 222-251.

6. Cummins, J. (1980). The construct of language proficiency in bilingual education. In J.E. Alatis (ed.) Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

7. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English the Living Dictionary. (2003). Pearson Education Limited.

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2010

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