If you are an immigrant to America, were you the young person who supported your family until they learned English and could thrive?

I once met someone fluent in three languages. He was quite intelligent. I could watch him move from English to another language within the same sentence or thought. I noticed how he and his family reverted back to their native language when conversations were explicitly tied to emotion - whether sad, angry or in a celebratory mood.

For the past 22 years, I've been experiencing language transitions in my home.


Because I married a multilingual man who spoke in so many different ways, not only did I find his

ESL Students

When young students arrive in America and begin attending school, they take a written, reading, and oral exam in English to ensure they are placed in the correct class - Dual Language, ESL, or Bilingual.

Once these students have a good grasp of social English, they tend to become the family's liaison and translator until the adults learn how to speak English - and quite often, the young people in the family handle almost everything until other members learn to communicate in all ways.

Being the only person who begins to learn English early carries a significant responsibility many people don't recognize. It's essential to know about family situations regarding language abilities - especially if you're engaging with a family with a different dialect. Cultural norms are also different, and young people tend to exemplify new and acceptable social behaviors for their family members.

Have you experienced anything like the story above? Did it change your trajectory in life?

What is the Most Challenging Language to Learn?

What language do you think is the hardest to learn?

The most complex language to learn can vary depending on how well you speak, read, and write in your first language. Other factors affecting language learning include your prior education level, learning background, and personal motivation. However, some languages are considered more challenging to learn than others.

Most people find that Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese are among the most complicated languages for native English speakers to learn. This challenge is due to the differences in writing systems, grammar structure, and how we pronounce words.

Other challenging languages can include Russian and Hungarian because their grammar systems are less relatable to other languages.

The difficulty of learning a new language is always subjective and can vary depending on several factors.

What about English?

Did you know? English is one of the most challenging languages to learn, especially compared to many Romance languages like Spanish and French.

According to Language Confidence, one of the main reasons English is so tricky to learn is because of its origin.

They state, "Specifically, English is a West Germanic language that came from a mixture of Anglo-Saxon dialects, Latin words and dialects, and even dialects from southern Denmark and the Netherlands. The resulting mix-up of words and grammar rules has resulted in one of the most commonly spoken but tough-to-parse languages in the world."

Have you experienced this challenge when it comes to learning English?

If so, below are some tips and language descriptors that can help you understand how non-native English speakers learn, read, speak, and write.

Meet the Acronyms: BICS and CALP

BICS and CALP are both acronyms that refer to the time it requires new English language learners to develop the necessary conversational and academic skills in the English language.

BICS: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills

CALP: Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

The acronyms also refer to grade-appropriate academic proficiency in the same language.

Each of the concepts mentioned above plays a role in the language development process. The first (BICS) focuses on social language acquisition skills, and the other (CALP) refers to academic language acquisition.

Let's take a closer look at these concepts to understand them better since recognizing the difference is crucial for teachers who work with non-native English-speaking students.


BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) are language skills that people need in social situations. This type of language is what we use on a day-to-day basis to interact with others.

For students, BICS is essential for children to interact with their peers while playing at recess, in team sports activities, at lunchtime, or socializing outside of school.

This type of language skill is not profoundly cognitively demanding. BICS usually develops between six months and two years after families arrive in the U.S.

A common misconception is that if a child has mastered English social skills, they are proficient at the academic level. This confusion can cause problems in their ability to grasp the literary language.


CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) refers to the student's formal academic learning. The CALP concept deals with skills essential to academics, such as listening, reading, speaking, and how to write about the relevant subject matter.

Landing this language skill is a crucial concept when it comes to a student's academic success. Students need time and patience to become proficient in the language skills necessary for academic learning.

It could take five to seven years for a student to acquire the appropriate level of skills for their academics.

If a student has no prior experience in school or needs parental support, this process could take up to ten years. Also, many young children end up teaching their parents English, or their parents choose not to learn the language–which can have severe consequences for both the social and academic sides.

This concept is even more complicated because it has to cover such topics as inferring, classifying, comparing, evaluating, and synthesizing language for the content matter. If a student is not placed in a bilingual class, processing the English language can be cognitively demanding because the student must learn new ideas, concepts, and the English language all at once.

Jim Cummins is the founder of this theory, and he has dedicated a great deal of time and effort to these strategies to improve the learning experience for ESL students.

By separating these language learning concepts, you can better understand the different ways to teach and understand ESL and Bilingual students.

A big takeaway to note is the levels of attainment and recognizing when to move a student into the academic portion of the English language.

Also, teachers must remember that a successful student in BICS doesn't necessarily mean they are ready to move toward academic language learning (CALP).

CALP is a concept that requires a bit of patience for both teachers and students. Students who succeed in both of these areas can achieve great things here in the States and worldwide.

BICS and CALP may be different, but they are both necessary for language development in ESL students.

If you were a young English learner who helped out your family, I would love to hear your story below.

Thank you for reading!

About the author

My name is Robyn D. Shulman. I'm a writer, editor, educator and the Growth Marketing Manager for Summit K12 - where we empower learners and support teachers in the ESL/Bilingual and Dual Language Field. In 2018, I won LinkedIn's Top Voice, and I'm a former contributor to Forbes, where I covered education and entrepreneurship.

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Thank you again for reading!