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Linguistic structure and educational achievement in second language acquisition

The case of German-Portuguese students in a dual language program

Wissenschaftlicher Aufsatz 2008 18 Seiten

Pädagogik - Sonstiges



The widely decontextualised educational language, its abstraction from everyday relations and its exemption from personal-dialogical communication have lead the Canadian researcher Jim Cummins to distinguish between „ basic interpersonal communication skills “ (BICS) and „ cognitive-academic language proficiency “ (CALP). Against this conceptual backdrop, educational discourse is seen to focus on CALP, a language with higher cognitive requirements, lower contextual transparency and a higher demand for abstraction. It presupposes on behalf of the students a differentiated vocabulary, the ability and coherence to discern and articulate, as well as the competence in dealing with complex linguistic structures. According to Gogolin, Kaiser, Roth et al. 2004, in evaluating the relationship between linguistic competence and educational achievement it is less relevant to focus on the students ’ general linguistic resources than on CALP-related, hence educational specific, capabilities and strategies. In their research on Turkish-German and Russian-German students and their linguistic, as well as mathematical competence, a correlation was found between the successful verbalisation of a mathematical problem and the reaching of its correct solution.

A six-year project following a German-Portuguese bilingual class in Hamburg learning in a dual language program provided data related to several aspects of these students ’ linguistic acquisition. This paper, however, aims to examine the type of relations which can be derived from the students ’ semantic, syntactic and discoursive structure and their achievement at school. Therefore, the students were asked to compose a narrative text having a series of images as prompt. The data were treated both quantitatively and qualitatively with special relevance given to the students ’ linguistic resources in a CALP-related perspective.

1. Preliminary considerations: language and school achievement in Germany

In 1979 Cummins distinguished between basic interpersonal communicative skills and cognitive academic language proficiency. The intention of such a distinction was towards to clarify the different time periods typically required by immigrant children to acquire conversational fluency in their second language as compared to grade- appropriate academic proficiency. Conversational fluency is often achieved at a functional level within about two years of initial exposure to the second language, whereas at least five years are commonly required to equal native speakers in academic aspects of the second language (Collier, 1987; Klesmer, 1994; Cummins, 1981a). Failure to take account of the BICS/CALP (conversational/academic) distinction has resulted in discriminatory psychological assessment of bilingual students and premature exit from language support programs into mainstream classes (Cummins, 1984).

In all migration countries, the school achievement of immigrant children is an issue which is often brought in relation with their linguistic situation. However, beyond language, many other factors can influence the school performance of such groups, such as, discrimination, conflicts or school selection mechanisms. In Germany, the level of school achievement of immigrant children is strikingly lower than that of monolingual German students. In the school year 2000/01, for example, 20,3% of the students with a migratory background left school without a certificate and 40% attained not more than the graduation at a Hauptschule[1]. Regarding their entrance in the professional world, the amount of apprentices has been continuously decreasing in the last years; from 9,6% in 1996 to 7,1% in 2000 (cf. Neumann, 2003).

The situation was aggravated by the low results revealed by the PISA-Study; in no country is the relation between social class and students’ performance as high as in Germany (cf. Deutsches PISA-Konsortium, 2001). The majority of the fifteen-year-olds who have one foreign-born parent displayed almost no difference in relation to the German children. However, the situation of the youngsters whose parents both stem from another country is considerably worse. Almost 50% of these students do not go beyond the basic performance level in reading comprehension, although 70% from them completed their whole school education in Germany. With these results, it was clear that this was not an isolated problem from a marginal group of students, but in fact a structural trait of the German educational system - elevated and origin-related selectivity. Particularly at the turning points of the system, the functional logic of its selective nature favors what has been called “institutional discrimination” (cf. Gomolla & Radtke, 2002).

The German PISA Consortium comments that the dominance of the German language at a grade-appropriate level is considered to be decisive for the school achievement of immigrant children. However, deriving from this statement, one question comes to mind: What sort of language is needed to attain school achievement at a grade-appropriate level? According to Siebert-Ort, „Maßgebend für den Bildungserfolg ist (…) der Erwerb der (schriftnahen) Standardsprache bzw. der im Unterricht zunehmend verwendeten Fachsprache.“ (2006: 148). In fact, the discussion being conducted in the last years in Germany tends to identify, as already noted by Cummins (1979), the acquisition of the school specific language in the second language as the reason for the relative low school achievement of migrant students. As noted by Gogolin, „die deutsche Schule versäumt es offenbar stärker als andere Schulsysteme, auch jene spezifischen sprachlichen Kompetenzen zu vermitteln, die die conditio sine qua non für den Bildungserfolg sind. Es geht um die Vermittlung des Deutschen - nicht als Sprache des Lebens oder der alltäglichen Unterhaltung sondern als Sprache der Schule.“ (2006: 40f).

Already widely accepted is the thesis that, in order to attain high school performance, the linguistic repertoire used by the students in their daily communication plays a minor role, as it is not related to the specific discourse demanded by the school.

The typical academic language is mainly oriented by the rules of the written speech also when it is used in oral contexts within the classroom. Thus, school academic language can be defined according to Halliday’s description of written language; it is marked by high lexical density, it is not situation-specific and operates strongly with symbolic, generalising and abstract linguistic expressions. In other words, the school language presupposes “cognitive-academic language proficiency (CALP)“ (Cummins 1979). According to Cummins, the relatively low school performances of second language learners are caused by an insufficient acquisition of CALP in the second language.

2. The bilingual project in Hamburg: oral cognitive-academic language at the end of the fourth grade

Seven years ago a set of bilingual primary schools being taught in a two-way bilingual model was created in Hamburg. Apart from German, the languages taking part in this project include Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and Turkish. One of the purposes of the scientific evaluation of these schools, being conducted on behalf of the University of Hamburg, is to establish the relation between certain linguistic structures and school achievement in bilingual contexts, i.e. to detach the linguistic features that are typical of the academic discourse in the each of the two language pairs of the project. Using as visual prompt nine images related to themes such as health, environment, family, technology, sciences and traffic, the students had to react to them orally in both their languages and were always posed the same questions. The material collected comprises about 1.500 pages of transcribed text; from these, two of the images were selected for further detailed analysis, concerning mainly the relation between colloquial language forms and linguistic structures representative of an academic style. In addition to the verbal morphology and the sentence connectors, the following features were analysed:

- Passive voice constructions
- Impersonal expressions
- Subjunctive
- Constructions with the auxiliary verb “lassen”
- Nominalisation
- Compound nouns
- Attributes

Additionally, the colloquial expressions and jargon were coded extra. In order to answer the research question regarding the existence of empirically attestable linguistic phenomena of academic speech, a factor analysis was conducted and two main components, as well as two minor components were found:

1. Attributes, jargon expressions like “oder so” and colloquial forms belong to the first component, as well as a tendency towards the use of subordinate clauses. This can be described as a school register to a certain extent with a low level of abstractive performance; nevertheless it tends to colloquial formulations. It can be called colloquial style.
2. The second component encloses the nominal elements - nominalization and compound nouns - and verbs, as well as impersonal expressions and sentence connectors. This component can be entitled academic style.
3. As independent factors, the third component includes only the verbal subjunctive and the passive voice constructions. It can be termed elaborate style[2].

With these components, an outline of oral academic language beyond semantic aspects was established and should be verified and expanded in other studies. However,for the above mentioned groups, the oral academic school register in German can be characterised with these three components; a reliability analysis showed high figures for all three styles[3].


[1] Type of school destined for the students with the lowest results in the German school system and which intends to prepare them for the immediate entrance in the work market.

[2] Cf. Roth et al 2007 .

[3] Colloquial style [Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten], academic style [Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten], elaborated Style [Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten].


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
618 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Hamburg
Linguistic German-Portuguese



Titel: Linguistic structure and educational achievement in second language acquisition