A BRIEF HISTORY
Most people reading this will be familiar with the term academic language and its history, so I won't waste too much space describing it. But, if you're not familiar, get a little primary source documentation on Jim Cummins' 20th century (i.e., 1979) framing of Basic Interpersonal Communications Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), which was later expanded to include context embedded/context reduced and cognitively demanding/cognitively undemanding language dimensions (see below). These theories basically convinced people that CALP was cognitively demanding and context reduced, while social language was cognitively undemanding and context embedded. That is, academic language is better for school, and social language is good only for the playground and the home.
There is plenty of theoretical and empirical evidence to suggest that the above is simply not the case (e.g., Flores, 2019; Valdés, Capitelli, & Alvarez, 2011). However, over time, and especially with respect to minoritized bilingual children and youth, academic language has calcified into a nondescript yet global term, where folks can't reliably tell you what academic language is, but they sure can tell you what they think it isn't. And more often than not, the language practices of bilingual and minoritized children and youth are evaluated vis-a-vis a "white listening subject" which Flores & Rosa, 2015 define as white middle class linguistic norms becoming the default stand-in for what counts as academic language. Anything that differs from it is not academic language. Such raciolingustic ideologies around academic language maintain notions of white linguistic supremacy in schools, which is especially problematic because the vast majority (~80%) of teachers in U.S. schools are white, but the majority of children and youth in U.S. schools are Black and Brown, and increasingly speak languages in addition to English (Proctor & Chang-Bacon, in press).
In response, there have been recent calls to suspend all use of the term academic language because of this troublesome past and present. Flores (2019), for example, recently proposed "language architecture" as a way to describe the linguistic expectations of things like the Common Core State Standards, noting that the same linguistic architecture is often present in the every day linguistic practices of minoritized bilingual children and youth, even though these often get coded as "not academic language". There is also English or Language for Academic Purposes. That can work too (except for the "English" part; see Turner, 2004). Systemic Functional Linguistics (Brisk, 2015) also tries to get at a linguistic architecture of sorts, like that described by Flores (though "SFLers" seem to be generally accepting of the term academic language).
ACADEMIC LANGUAGING & ACADEMIC TRANSLANGUAGING
In my view, one issue that gets overlooked in the academic language debate is that of language modality. To this end, I like theories of 'languaging' and 'translanguaging', which, when it comes to expressive modalities, view language, and its use, holistically. That is, language is a non-count noun -- there is no plural (i.e., no distinct languages). As such, humans use all their language (singular) for expressive and communicative purposes which varies as a function of context. Relatedly, we now have translanguaging, which introduces multiple named languages into understanding multilingual languaging (see García & Wei, 2014). Academic language is problematic because it tries to identify a specific, countable language and elevate its status over other countable languages. You see how the two theories (academic language and languaging) are at odds when children and youth are languaging at school, but then are subject to judgement by the white listening subject which wants to hear or read some prescriptive, preconceived version of academic language.
All this to say that 20th century notions of academic language have be expanded. It can't just be about academic versus social language, or context embeddedness and cognitive challenge. To push change, I think it's helpful to learn the troubling history of academic language and reimagine it with just a small morphological tweak: academic language becomes academic languaging. Such a shift might help change mind sets around these strung-together words. In this way, languaging is attached to making sense of school-driven content, and as such gives rise to academic languaging. Applying this to multilingual, or heteroglossic, contexts could be thought of as academic translanguaging. In this framework, the language(s) that students are using to make sense of school-driven content is incidental because as they talk, write, digitally compose, sing, act, etc., they are academic languaging or translanguaging. As long as students are engaging content (which is hopefully itself engaging and meaningful to the students), the linguistic forms are incidental and equitable.
Academic language is a count noun, something that, too often, children and youth have imposed upon them by the white listening subject. Academic languaging is a verb/gerund that gives language back to the student, the language user, and assumes full use of the existing linguistic repertoire deployed in the service of making sense of school-based content.
But that really just addresses expressive language -- speaking, writing, multimodal composing, gaming, etc. Next post will be on reimagining academic language for receptive contexts, particularly focused on reading.