Communicative Competence


If a language learner is asked what they think the goal of a language course is, they would probably answer that it is to teach the grammar and vocabulary of that language. However, if they are asked what their goal is as language learners, they would most probably answer that it is to be able to communicate in that language.

I am not saying that in actuality the goal of a language course is to teach solely grammar and vocabulary — well, at least it shouldn't be just that anymore. (I've been in a course with such an outdated approach, and the results were, of course, poor). Fortunately, the focus of second language teaching has moved from purely teaching grammar and vocabulary, to providing the skills for effective communication. In linguistics terminology, a language course should not only have “linguistic competence” as its goal, but “communicative competence” in general.

But what do these terms mean? Communicative competence is a term coined by Dell Hymes in 1966 in reaction to Noam Chomsky's (1965) notion of “linguistic competence”. Communicative competence is the intuitive functional knowledge and control of the principles of language usage. As Hymes observes:

“…a normal child acquires knowledge of sentences not only as grammatical, but also as appropriate. He or she acquires competence as to when to speak, when not, and as to what to talk about with whom, when, where, in what manner. In short, a child becomes able to accomplish a repertoire of speech acts, to take part in speech events, and to evaluate their accomplishment by others.”
(Hymes 1972, 277)

In other words, a language user needs to use the language not only correctly (based on linguistic competence), but also appropriately (based on communicative competence). Of course, this approach does not diminish the importance of learning the grammatical rules of a language. In fact, it is one of the four components of communicative competence: linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competence.

  1. Linguistic competence is the knowledge of the language code, i.e. its grammar and vocabulary, and also of the conventions of its written representation (script and orthography). The grammar component includes the knowledge of the sounds and their pronunciation (i.e. phonetics), the rules that govern sound interactions and patterns (i.e. phonology), the formation of words by means of e.g. inflection and derivation (i.e. morphology), the rules that govern the combination of words and phrases to structure sentences (i.e. syntax), and the way that meaning is conveyed through language (i.e. semantics).
  2. Sociolinguistic competence is the knowledge of sociocultural rules of use, i.e. knowing how to use and respond to language appropriately. The appropriateness depends on the setting of the communication, the topic, and the relationships among the people communicating. Moreover, being appropriate depends on knowing what the taboos of the other culture are, what politeness indices are used in each case, what the politically correct term would be for something, how a specific attitude (authority, friendliness, courtesy, irony etc.) is expressed etc.
  3. Discourse competence is the knowledge of how to produce and comprehend oral or written texts in the modes of speaking/writing and listening/reading respectively. It's knowing how to combine language structures into a cohesive and coherent oral or written text of different types. Thus, discourse competence deals with organising words, phrases and sentences in order to create conversations, speeches, poetry, email messages, newspaper articles etc.
  4. Strategic competence is the ability to recognise and repair communication breakdowns before, during, or after they occur. For instance, the speaker may not know a certain word, thus will plan to either paraphrase, or ask what that word is in the target language. During the conversation, background noise or other factors may hinder communication; thus the speaker must know how to keep the communication channel open. If the communication was unsuccessful due to external factors (such as interruptions), or due to the message being misunderstood, the speaker must know how to restore communication. These strategies may be requests for repetition, clarification, slower speech, or the usage of gestures, taking turns in conversation etc.

These four components of communicative competence should be respected in teaching a foreign language —and they usually are by modern teaching methods employed in second language teaching. Usually most of the above are best learned if the language learner immerses into the culture of a country that speaks the target language. Wouldn't it be great if the language teaching methodologies helped language learners reach communicative competence to a great degree even if the learner has never immersed into the target culture?

Chomsky, Noam (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.
Hymes, Dell H. (1966). "Two types of linguistic relativity". In Bright, W. Sociolinguistics. The Hague: Mouton. pp. 114-158.

Hymes, Dell H. (1972). "On communicative competence". In Pride, J.B.; Holmes, J. Sociolinguistics: selected readings. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 269-293.

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