Linguistic and Communicative Competence


By Rini Ekayati

Department of Linguistics, University of Delhi, New Delhi.



Linguists are aware of the inter-relationship between language and the society, because it is in society that language has its existence. But they have not succeeded in describing such a relationship. Phonology, Lexis and Syntax, which are objects of linguistic description constitute only a part of the elements in the code used for communication. The meaning(s) of an utterance (a sentence, a clause, a phrase, a word, etc) do(es) not depend entirely on its form; a lot depend on who says what, to whom, where, why, in what manner and in what effect. In other words, the context of situation in which an utterance is said, who said it, and to whom are very important. For instance, the occurrence “Can I have the salt please?” is interrogative in form but expresses a polite request in a dining room.


Grammatical knowledge is not enough to help us participate effectively in communicative situation. In addition to acquainting oneself with the forms of language, one must know the following in order to communicate appropriately:


1. The socio-cultural relation including the attitude, values, conventions, prejudices and preferences of the people who use the language.


2. The nature of the participants which shows the relationship between the speaker and the listener, their occupation, interest, socio-economic status, etc.


3. The rule of the participant, such as the relationship in social network, father – son, teacher – student, boss – subordinate, landlord – tenant, doctor – patient, etc.


4. The nature and function of the speech deals with whether it is a face to face talk persuasion, confrontation, or a casual conversation, or a request informal situation, or a telephonic conversation, etc.


5. The mode (medium) of communication, whether spoken or written form or reading from a written script, or unprepared speech.


Communicative competence, indeed, includes the whole of linguistics competence plus the whole of the amorphous (indefinite shape or form) range of facts included under socio-linguistic pragmatic competence (the rules and conventions for using language items in context and other factors like attitudes, values, and motivation. Dell Hymes says that one who studies language should be able: “to account for this fact that a normal child acquires knowledge of sentence not only as grammatical but also 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 acquire a repertoire (all the skills, etc that a person has and is able to use) of speech act to take part in a speech act, and to evaluate their accomplishment by others.”


Chomsky believes that linguistic competence can be separated from the rest of communicative competence and studied in isolation but socio-linguist, like Dell Hymes believes that the notion of linguistic competence is unreal and that no significant progress in linguistics is possible without studying forms along with the ways in which they are used. In addition to this, basic the linguistic competence falls under the domain of communicative competence because communicative competence is made up of four competence areas including linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic.


For one thing, social interaction is actually skilled work, and it requires effort. It is not in innate (inborn or genetically endowed). It has to be learnt from others. A person who faces to learn and make himself and others uneasy in conversation and perpetually kills encounters is a faulty person. Dell Hymes maintains that competence is dependent upon the fore features listed below:


1. Whether (and to what degree) something is possible.

2. Whether (and to what degree) something is visible (in relation to the means available)

3. Whether (and to what degree) something is appropriate (adequate, happy, in relation to the context in which it is used).

4. Whether (and to what degree) something is performed (actually done and what the doing entails).


All these show that the linguistic competence is largely a part of Communicative Competence. Dell Hymes’ criticism of the concept of linguistic competence is that it is an abstraction without any relevance to actual use. The same criticism has been directed against the notion of communicative competence. According to Widdowson, if linguistic competence is an abstraction of grammatical knowledge, communicative competence is an abstraction of social behaviour. The notion of communicative competence does not include in its purview (the scope somebody’s activities or influence) the actual procedure, which language users adopt in order to participate in language based on activity. So, along with linguistic competence and communicative competence, pragmatic competence should also be brought into focus.


Pragmatic competence is the one that underlines the ability to use the language along with a conceptual system to achieve certain aims or purpose. And it determines how the tool can be effectively put to use: It is user-oriented.

We can sum up and say that the following are essentially the components of communication that go into the building up of the communicative competence:


A. Linguistic Knowledge and the para-linguistic Cues:


(i) Verbal elements (sentences, clauses, phrases, etc.)

(ii) Non-verbal elements (aspects of communicative behaviour, such as: facial expression, body movement, eye gaze, gesture, proximity, etc.)

(iii) Elements of discourse and their organization in connective speech and writing.

(iv) Range of possible variants (possible variations and their organizations).

(v) Meaning of variants to a particular situation.


B. Interaction Skills:


(i) Norms of interaction and interpretation.

(ii) Strategies for achieving desire goals.

(iii) Perception or features (verbal as well as non-verbal) in communication situation (situation of communication).

(iv) Understanding appropriateness in any given situation.


C. Cultural Knowledge:


(i) Socials structure.

(ii) Values and attitudes.

(iii) Cognitive scheme (verbal as well as noun verbal) and the cultural transmission processes.


The setting (means: place) of interaction also is an important factor in defining a situation for instance whether you interact someone in the church, a temple, a mosque, a classroom or a market place contributes to the nature of interaction and the variety of language use.


Another concept useful in understanding communicative competence is the concept of phatic-communion. One purpose of phatic communion is to avoid silence because it may imply hostility or embarrassment when it is not required. For instance, pray hall silence may be a sign of respect but when two acquaintances meet and remain silent, their silence may be interpreted as hostility or, at least, indifference. Some expressions like ‘how are you?’ ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’, etc. are highly conventional but their violation affects communication patterns adversely as often leads to discomfiture (lack of comfort) of participants in the interaction.


The concept of communicative competence introduced by Dell Hymes brought about a shift in the approach method and technique in language pedagogy. Linguists argued that ‘There are rules of use without which the rules of grammar will be useless. A distinction was made between the grammatical rules that enable the users to frame correct sentences and the rules of the use of the languages to accomplish some kind of communicative purpose. Some socio-linguists rather some socio-linguistic principles became the key phrase in language teaching.


The European common market gave a fillip (a thing that stimulates or encourages something) to the communicative approach. There was increased need for teaching adults the major languages of the European common market for increased interaction. Wilkins advocated notional-functional syllabus in his book, Notional Syllabus (1976). He gave a course around the uses or functions to which language is put: For example, one lesson can be planned on requesting information, another on apologizing and the third one on expressing gratitude. Linguists made inventories of functions, notions, and structures but they made no the proposal for the gradation of materials to be used. Grading according to functional complexity did not make any sense to them for a simple reason that syntactic complexity and function are to separated or different parameters.


The major distinctive features of Communicative Approach as contrasted to the Audio Lingual Method are the following:


1. Meaning is more important than the structure and form.
2. Dialogues if used around communicative functions, are not to be memorized.

3. Language item should be contextualized. They should not be taught in isolation as in Audio Lingual Method.

4. Language learning does not imply learning structures, sounds and words but learning to communicate.

5. Effective communication is sought and emphasized instead of mastery and over learning.

6. Drilling is not central but peripheral (secondary or minor importance).

7. Pronunciation needs not be native live but comprehensive.

8. Grammatical explanation is not avoided; any device, which the learners have, is accepted varying according to their age and interest.

9. Attempt to communicate needs not to make only after a long process of rigid drills but from the very beginning.

10. Judicious use of native language is accepted when feasible.

11. Translation may be used when student can take benefits.

12. Reading and writing need not weigh for one’s mastery over speech. They may start from the very first day.

13. The target linguistic system will be learnt not through the teaching of the pattern of the system but through the process of learning to communicate.

14. Instead of linguistic competence, communicative competence is the desired goal.

15. Linguistic variation is accepted as a central condition in method and materials.

16. The sequence of units is determined not by the principle of linguistic complexity but by the consideration of content, function, and meaning, which maintain interest.

17. The teacher helps the learners in any way that motivate them to work with the language (regardless of any conflict theory).

18. Language is not a habit; it is created by the individual through trial and error.

19. The primary goal is not accuracy in terms of formal correctness, but fluency and acceptable language; accuracy is judged not in the abstract but in context.

20. Students should not be subjected to making use of language through machines or controlled materials. They should rather be encouraged to interact with people through pair or group work in real life.

21. The teacher should not specify what language students are to use. Indeed he cannot know or anticipate exactly what language the student will use.

22. Intrinsic motivation will spring not from interest in the structure of the language but in what is being communicated in language.



© 2011 by  Rini Ekayati



The Communicative Approach


Timothy Mason

Université de Paris 8



A : Chomsky and the critique of behaviourism


The methods such as AL, based upon a behaviourist theory of learning, and on Bloomfieldian linguistics, were challenged by the theories of language and language-learning of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky argued that it was impossible for people to acquire a language by simple repetition and reinforcement. Children, he said, do not learn a language this way, for they do not, in fact, repeat what adults say, but produce their own sentences, and create phrases which they have never heard before. They also make systematic errors, and no amount of correct input or of error- correction will stop them from doing so. Children do not so much learn the grammar of a language, as they construct it anew (see Lecture 1 for Licence for a fuller discussion of Chomsky's LAD).


It should be said that even if this was the case for children learning their mother-tongue, we could not simply assume that adults and adolescents learn a FL in the same way. Nevertheless, the idea that over-learning of typical structures would lead to mastery of an FL seemed to be very dubious in the light of Chomsky's critique of Behaviourist approaches to language learning. However, Chomsky himself did not feel that linguistics could do much to help language teachers. Indeed, he wrote that neither linguistics, nor psychology could do or say much to further the cause of classroom learning.


Moreover, Chomsky's own model of language quickly came under fire from people who were at least sympathetic to his attack on behaviourism. This was because Chomsky's model appears to construct an ideal, and unreal, image of the language user. Chomsky, extending Saussure's distinction between 'langue' and 'parole', differentiates between competence and performance. The proper object of study for the linguist, he says, is not language as it is produced in everyday situations - that is performance - but the inner, and ultimately innate knowledge of grammar that everyone has in their minds - that is competence.


To study language, then, we need to turn away from real usage, in which the actualisation of grammar is always partial, interrupted and likely to be over-ridden by other concerns, and look to the prior knowledge of grammar that all speakers possess, and which has nothing to do with the social situation within which they happen to find themselves. From the start, this conception of the linguist’s task aroused criticism, and one of the most telling critiques was made by the sociolinguist Dell Hymes.


C: Dell Hymes and 'Communicative Competence'


Hymes first of all draws attention to the image of the ideal speaker that Chomsky's model
draws :


The image is that of a child, born with the ability to master any language with almost miraculous ease and speed; a child who is not merely moulded by conditioning and reinforcement, but who actively proceeds with the unconscious theoretical interpretation of the speech that comes its way, so that in a few years and with a finite experience, it is master of an infinite ability, that of producing and understanding in principle any and all grammatical sentences of language. The image (or theoretical perspective) expresses the essential equality in children just as human beings. It is noble in that it can inspire one with the belief that even the most dispiriting conditions can be transformed; it is an indispensable weapon against views that would explain the communicative differences among groups of children as inherent, perhaps racial.

But, says Hymes, this image is also misleading, for it abstracts the child as learner, and the adult as language-user, from the social contexts within which acquisition and use are achieved. And because it does this, it produces an ideal speaker who is a very strange being indeed.


Consider now a child with just such an ability (Chomsky's competence). A child who might produce any sentence whatsoever - such a child would be likely to be institutionalized: even more so if not only sentences, but also speech or silence was random, unpredictable. For that matter, a person who chooses occasions and sentences suitably, but is master only of fully grammatical sentences, is at best a bit odd. Some occasions call for being appropriately ungrammatical.


We have then to account for the fact that 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 suggests, then, that linguistic competence is but a sub-division of a greater whole - communicative competence. Language is but one mode of communication among others, and full communication involves mastery of all the codes - gesture, position, non-verbal vocalization, use of visual aids and so on. And language itself varies from situation to situation, from communicative dyad to communicative dyad ; bilingual and multilingual people, Hymes points out, often differentiate the contexts within which one language or another can be used - the Berber uses the Berber language for everyday interaction, and reserves Arabic for discussions of transcendental matters. The change in social relationships that in French is signified by the shift from 'Vous' to 'Tu' is, in Paraguay indicated by shift of a whole language, from Spanish to Guarani. Within a single language, differences and distinctions may be denoted by changes in code or register, by the use of specific kinds of vocabulary, or by the way silence is used. These constraints on language use are as important as the rules of grammar. Hymes writes :


The acquisition of such competency is of course fed by social experience, needs, and motives, and issues in action that is itself a renewed source of motives, needs, experience. We break irrevocably with the model that restricts the design of language to one face toward referential meaning, one toward sound, and that defines the organization of language as solely consisting of rules for linking the two. Such a model implies naming to be the sole use of speech, as if languages were never organized to lament, rejoice, beseech, admonish, aphorize, inveigh, for the many varied forms of persuasion, direction, expression and symbolic play. A model of language must design it with a face toward communicative conduct and social life.


D: The Speech Act - Austin and Searle


Hymes insists, then, on the utility of language, and the need to understand it as a tool - or set of tools - that people use to carry out different tasks. This will bring us to a consideration of the concept of the 'speech act' : the idea that when someone says something, she is not simply sitting back and describing the world, but intends to produce some kind of effect, some kind of change in the world.


This concept is usually traced to the work of the English philosopher, John Austin, who, in his book How to Do Things With Words, pointed to a class of enunciations which he called 'performatives'. When a vicar, on splashing a baby's head with holy water, announces 'I baptize thee Sarah Jane Featherstonehaugh', his words actually ensure that the baptism has force. Similarly, if I say 'I bet you 200F that England beat Australia', then I am - however absurd it may seem - making the bet. The statement has, in Austin's terms illocutionary force.


This insight has been extended by other thinkers, and in particular by John Searle, for whom all language use can be seen as functional. Searle identifies five classes of speech acts :


Representatives : language is used to describe a state of affairs - e.g., a news item on the radio, a comment on the weather.


Directives : Language is used to put the listener under an obligation to act in a certain way in the future - e.g. a command or a request


Commisives : Language is used to contract an obligation on the part of the speaker to act in a certain way in the future - e.g. a promise or an offer


Expressives : Language is used to express a psychological state - e.g. a declaration of love, an apology or congratulations


Declaratives : Language is used to render effective the content of the act - e.g. baptism, a sentence pronounced by a judge


Now, if we look at these speech acts carefully, we will note that, if we want to carry them out efficiently, we have to understand not only the language that we wish to use, but also the social situation within which the act is to occur. For a statement to have illocutionary force, it must be said by the right person at the right time, and said in the right way. This is quite obvious with declaratives : I may say to anyone I choose : 'I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead', but my declaration will have no effect, for not only am I not a judge sitting in a Criminal Court, but the death penalty has been abolished.


But even for the other kinds of language acts, the social situation, the underlying rules and social relationships, are important. A request for information may be misunderstood not only if it is badly formulated from the grammatical point of view, but also if it is socially inappropriate : Hymes gives the examples of the Araucanians of Chile - amongst whom the repetition of a question is regarded as an insult - and of the Mexican Tzeltal indians, who never ask direct questions.


If I am to master a foreign language, then, I must master :


The language as system - the grammar, phonology and vocabulary that were traditionally seen as the object of the FL class.


The rules determining what language can be used by whom in which situation. This includes both an understanding of the social situation itself, and an understanding of the different forms of language - or the different types of discourse.


The non-linguistic codes that I may manipulate in order to repair damaged or partial utterances on occasions when my knowledge of the language as a system is not sufficient.

Thus we can, with Canale and Swain, define communicative competence as consisting in three factors -


Grammatical competence.

Sociolinguistic competence.

Strategic competence.

Sophie Moirand gives us a more detailed, and rather different definition, with communicative competence consisting of four sub-components:


Une composante linguistique.

Une composante discursive.

Une composante référentielle.

Une composante socioculturelle.


Moirand sees communicative strategies as only intervening at the moment of actualisation, and regards them as individual - a judgement that, as we have seen, would not meet with the agreement of Hymes.


E: The Communicative Syllabus


What does this mean for the teacher and the learner? One corollary is that if we stress the social nature of language, then the speaker, as social actor, is central. From the point of view of FL learning, this means that the characteristics of the learner, her aims and needs, are of paramount importance, for if language is a tool-kit, then we need to know what it is to be used for, and it is only the learner herself who can, in the end, determine this.


This implies that a communicative approach will begin with an analysis of the needs of the learner, and that this analysis will be carried out in consultation with her. Furthermore, we can imagine that as the learner's competence grows, so her needs will expand and change; this implies that we need to maintain an open dialogue with the learner, to listen to her constantly in order to adjust our teaching to her changing needs and priorities.


How far can such an approach be applied within a compulsory school system?


A second corollary is that we can no longer hold back certain grammatical forms until we feel that the student is 'ripe' for them, but must present the forms in terms of their utility. Now this may mean that learners will need to be exposed to complex forms from the beginning of their course, in which case we cannot be sure that they will necessarily acquire them from the start. So we will need to return to these forms, deepening the learner's grasp and capacity to use them at each new stage : this, then, gives us the basis for our curriculum, which will move out from the most immediate needs of the learner, to gradually encompass the more remote ones, all the time going back over material that has already been seen. We are back with Comenius's Spiral Curriculum.


But what will the development be based upon? We have seen that it cannot be simply determined as a grammatical progression - in fact, we don't really know what is difficult and what is easy, anyway. If we look at the textbooks today, we will see that most of them are based not simply on the language as a system, but also on speech acts, and on the lexical field. Look at the 'Table des matières' of a typical modern textbook - in this case, Action Anglais for 5e.


In some of the textbooks, you will see the terms Functions and Notions. Both of these can be traced back to the idea of the speech-act, as it was put forward in what is known as the Functional-Notional Syllabus. It is to this that I wish to turn now.


The Functional-Notional Approach - which can be seen as one version of the communicative school - as we shall see, there are others - arose out of the work done by the Council for Cultural Co-operation of the Council of Europe, which, in the 1960s, became interested in both 'Permanent Education' - la formation continue - and in language teaching. In 1971, a group of experts was set up, which decided that an analysis of how language was best taught should be based upon three preliminary investigations that would:


"Break down the global concept of language into units and sub-units on an analysis of particular groups of adult learners, in terms of the communicative situations in which they are characteristically involved. This analysis should lead to a precise articulation of the notion of 'common core' with specialist extensions at different proficiency levels.

"Set up on the basis of this analysis an operational specification for learning objectives.

"Formulate ... a meta-system defining the structure of a multi-media learning system to achieve these objectives in terms of the unit/credit concepts."


The idea was that language should be classified in terms of what people wanted to do with it - functions - or in terms of what meanings people wanted to put across - notions - rather than in terms of grammatical items. Further, the language was to be categorized by level, starting with the basic level, which would permit the learner to survive when visiting the country in which the language was spoken. For English, this work was done by Jan van Ek, who, in 1975, produced The Threshold Level, the basic syllabus that would serve as a foundation upon which to build more sophisticated speech capacities as the learner progressed. In the handbook, van Ek gave a list of 6 basic functions - we shall see the extent to which they differ from Searle's


Imparting and seeking factual information - identifying, reporting - including describing and narrating, correcting, asking.

Expressing and finding out intellectual attitudes - expressing agreement and disagreement 

- inquiring about agreement or disagreement 

- denying something, accepting an offer or invitation 

- declining an offer or invitation 

- inquiring whether offer or invitation is accepted or declined 

- offering to do something

- etc.


3. Expressing and finding out emotional attitudes


- expressing and inquiring about pleasure, liking 

- expressing an inquiring about displeasure, dislike 

- expressing and inquiring about surprise, home, satisfaction, dissatisfaction 

- expressing and inquiring about intention 

- expressing and inquiring about want and desire 

- etc.


4. Expressing and finding out moral attitudes


- apologizing 

- expressing appreciation 

- etc.


5. Getting things done (suasion)


- suggesting a course of action 

- requesting, inviting, or advising others to do something 

- warning others to take care or to refrain from doing something 

- instructing or directing others to do something


6. Socializing


- to greet people 

- when meeting people 

- when introducing people and being introduced 

- etc.



Within any functional category, there will be a number of different realizations. Thus, for example, a request could take the following forms:



Please open the window 

Open the window, please. 

Would you open the window? 

Would you mind opening the window? 

I wonder if you would mind opening the window? 


It might be a good idea to open the window.


Each form will be appropriate to a specific role within a specific situation. Van Ek added to his list of functions a set of criteria for the specification of situations :


1. Social roles

stranger/stranger, friend/friend, private person/official person, patient/doctor, etc.


2. Psychological roles

neutrality, equality, sympathy, antipathy


3. Settings


A. Geographical location (foreign country where the TL is the native language, foreign country where the TL is not the native language, own country)


B. Place


a) outdoors (park, street, seaside) 

b) indoors; private life (house, apartment, room, kitchen)


4. Surroundings


family, friends, acquaintances, strangers ...


Van Ek also added a grammatical component, and a set of topics. All of these are to be set within the spiral curriculum, in typical communicative fashion.


F: Conclusion


The recent developments in language teaching, then, have been motivated by a number of factors, including changes in linguistics, in learning psychology, and in the immediate political environment, with the increasing importance of global institutions. Also, increasing dissatisfaction with the results of earlier methods, such as G/T or AL, lead to a search for more efficient methods and approaches. These lead to the elaboration of the Communicative Approach, based upon:


1. The idea that the learner should be at the centre of our preoccupations - her needs, wishes, and learning styles should be at the basis of language programs 


2. The idea that language is not grammar, phonology and vocabulary alone, but a set of communicative tools, which can only be properly learned within communicative situations.




© 2011 by Timothy Mason