It is possible to study a language for years, have a vocabulary of several thousand words, and yet still flounder on your first interaction with a native speaker of that very language. Conversely, it's possible to have a very limited knowledge of a language, yet feel and appear fluent within normal social interactions, or the confines of specific industries or language applications. It all boils down to communicative competence, and understanding this concept will help you shape and define your language learning objectives. Linguists, please note: this post is about practical application of linguistics, not a commentary on any Hyme / Chomsky debate.
Communication competency is essentially what it sounds like: your ability to communicate within a given language and a given context. Such communicative competence, however, can be excellent in certain situations and terrible in others. By this I mean you may feel completely comfortable talking about sports but completely out of your depth discussing medicine or law.
Communicative competence should not be confused with communicative performance. The former is about your ability and is essentially static, while the latter is about your ability to "perform" linguistically in a variety of conditions and environments. If you are in a noisy bar, or if you are exhausted, your performance will go down, but this does not affect your essential competence in that language.
It's very common for people to study languages for several years only to be bested by a small child when it comes to fluency and communication. This can be incredibly demoralizing to the language learner, and often makes you feel that all the work in learning the new language has been wasted. This is, of course, not the case - but before continuing on in the language-learning process, you should stop and evaluate your objective.
People often consider language learning in terms of levels of ability, but very rarely in terms of clearly defined objectives. Your level of ability and your communicative competence can be developed and refined within a niche area without parallel developments in other areas of the language. I once worked on a tree farm in Iceland to improve my Icelandic. After several weeks, I could talk easily about various types of trees, the planting system, the greenhouses, and most of the things around me on the tree farm. On a trip into town, however, I found myself struggling to name the toppings I wanted on my sandwich.
Before beginning - or continuing - the language learning process, it's a good idea to define in detail the exact communicative competence you are aiming to achieve. Think about the question: what is communication? What do I need to be able not only to say, but do within the language? You may not actually care about language production if you just want to read the literature, so learning dialogues will not be an effective strategy for you.
This very issue is one of the reasons we put so much emphasis on language structure and grammar here at Linguisticator. With the exception of extremely limited spheres of functionality, it is impossible to communicate effectively within a language if you do not have a comprehensive sense of that language's grammar. If we are to define the communicative competence of a young child, this is an essential element. Most eight-year-olds will not know vocabulary items such as: theology, Roth IRA, pedagogy, oncology, and so on. Yet all eight-year-olds will understand and be able to actively produce all of the following:
- I drink milk
- I drank milk
- I will drink milk
- I would drink milk ifâ€¦
- I have drunk the milk
- I had already drunk the milk whenâ€¦
- I would have drunk the milk ifâ€¦
- I like to drink milk
- I want to drink milk
- drinking milk is good for you
We could replace the verb "to drink" and the object "milk" with any other common verb and common everyday object. The structural patterns remain the same, and these form the basis for the essential communicative competence required in any language.
If you want to establish the communication competency of a young child, your best bet is to limit your vocabulary and focus on gaining a comprehensive knowledge of the language's structure. While in our programs we include all the variations and exceptions of each language's grammar, for core communicative competence, understanding and being able to produce the main patterns of the language will get you very far.
In addition to the structure, there are a few other elements that you can learn very quickly to increase your competence in intercultural communication. The most notable are body language and filler words. The correct gestures - especially when greeting - go a long way to making you both appear and feel fluent. Being able to make the right sounds of agreement or disagreement to keep conversation ticking along is also essential, and the sounds and filler words must be learned to the point where no thought is necessary to produce them. The good thing about this is that it only takes a short amount of time to learn this small amount of material.
So, if you are like many people and have studied a language for years only to be shamed by a small native-speaking child, the work you've put in is not wasted - it has just not been fully converted into communicative competence. In order to connect the dots, you may need to return to basics, fully grasp the grammar of the language, and practice building up the habitual, formulaic, and almost ritualistic language found in everyday greetings and courtesies. This does not have to take long and will dovetail into your existing knowledge of the language. I had this exact experience the first time I went to Germany. I had been studying German literature at University, but had failed to learn common greetings and courtesies. I appeared not to know anything of German at all until the conversation advanced past the opening remarks.
Define your objectives when it comes to communicative compentencies and then establish what will be necessary to learn in order to reach those objectives. In most cases - even in â€œjust getting byâ€ - the full grammar is necessary. But beyond that you have to consider the environments and applications in which you'll be using the language. You may be surprised at how consistent and formulaic language is within a given context. Use that to your advantage!
Thanks for reading! If you are interested in learning more about linguistics and language learning, please check out our courses, including our Core Course in practical linguistics and how to learn languages.