Communicative competence refers to the degree to which a language user can use language to communicate effectively. Specifically, this refers to the knowledge of language itself—vocabulary and sentence formation—but also how to use language. Linguist Dell Hymes believed that the acquisition of language hinges more on what is appropriate rather than what is grammatically correct. In this view, language use is considered performative rather than prescriptive. Children develop linguistically through the process of engaging in what Hymes called “speech acts” and “speech events.” Children receive indirect feedback on these performances, which in turn impacts linguistic development.
Communicative competence, then, is based on the idea that the language user needs to develop more than a correct use of language: they also need to master the appropriate use of language.
Looking at the four components of communicative competence—linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic—will help you to understand this more.
Linguistic competence is the knowledge of the rules and conventions of written and spoken language. This competence governs phonetics, phonology, semantics, syntax, and morphology. For example, understanding Greek and Latin roots of words indicates linguistic competence.
Sociolinguistic competence is the knowledge needed to communicate in a particular context or setting. These may include cultural norms and differences based on sociocultural attributes such as geography, class, and gender. Being able to switch codes and registers indicates a high degree of competence in this area. For example, addressing your teacher in a formal rather than casual tone is indicative of sociolinguistic competence.
Discourse competence refers to the ability to produce and comprehend language in the different domains of speaking, writing, listening, and reading. Discourse competence exists on a continuum that demonstrates the degree to which the user can produce and process language according to task complexity. For example, if you can write a multi-paragraph essay using content-specific technical language, you have a high mastery of discourse competence.
Strategic competence, finally, is the capacity to know what to do when barriers to effective communication emerge. Imagine an ESL teacher using strategies such as actions and mimes to engage a student who does not know a certain word. When we use body language to check if someone is following what we are saying (e.g., raising eyebrows) we also demonstrate strategic competence.