Communicative Competence Research Paper Starter

Communicative Competence

(Research Starters)

Communicative competence is a theory that seeks to understand an individual's ability to effectively convey meaning within given contexts. The most widely-accepted components of this ability include grammatical competence, discourse competence, sociolinguistic competence, and strategic competence. While the theory of communicative competence has been greatly influential in changing the nature of classroom instruction, some controversy exists over how much students learn from implicit and direct methods of instruction, and over how to best assess communicative competence. Current trends indicate that communicative competence will continue to be an important theory in language classrooms, though the direct instruction of language forms may become more prevalent in the near future.

Keywords Communicative Competence; Communicative Language Teaching; Discourse Competence; Form Focused Instruction; Grammatical Competence; Negotiation of Meaning; Register; Socio-cultural Competence; Sociolinguistic Competence; Speech Act Theory; Strategic Competence


When people use language, they use much more that just words. A successful conversation requires speakers to choose language forms that make sense and are appropriate to a particular context. To be appropriate, speakers must consider the social expectations that govern a context such as taboos and the level of formality. They must use their grammatical knowledge to accurately structure their ideas in understandable phrases and sentences. They must use intonations and stresses that support the intended meaning of their words, and they must constantly interpret verbal and non-verbal feedback in order to choose their next set of utterances.

To negotiate such a sophisticated interaction requires participants to have communicative competence. Communicative competence describes one's ability effectively communicate meaning to a variety people across a variety of contexts.(Hymes, 1972). According to the widely-cited framework produced by Canale & Swain (1980) there are four components of communicative competence. These are grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, discourse competence and strategic competence.

Grammatical competence includes knowledge of vocabulary, pronunciation, sound-letter relationships, and the rules of word and sentence formation. This category of communicative competence has been traditionally associated with language learning.

Sociolinguistic competence describes an individual's ability to produce and understand appropriate utterances within a given context. Included in this domain is the use of speech acts, which are formulaic utterances, used in specific situations to achieve actions like thanking, greeting, requesting, responding, etc. This category also includes an individual's understanding of etiquette in a variety of social situations.

Discourse competence refers to an individual's ability to combine grammatical forms and meanings to create a unified text in different genres. Genres may be written (i.e. a narrative, or argument) or spoken (i.e. the distinctive speech styles found in regional, age, gender, and class groups) (Sato, 1990). Investigations within this domain have found that miscommunication can occur when individuals have differing discourse styles (Sato, 1990).

The last component, strategic competence, refers to an individual's ability to compensate for a lack of linguistic knowledge. For example, a speaker who doesn't know the word "triangle" may describe the shape by saying "it's a shape with three straight sides" so that the listener can understand the speaker's intended meaning and supply the correct word.

While these four components seem to be widely accepted in the literature, a few adaptations to the basic framework have been proposed. One change is to add a socio-cultural competence component, which describes an individual's ability to understand how culture affects communication (University of Minnesota(b), 2007). Another redesign of the framework is the creation of five categories including discourse (the core competency), linguistic, actional, socio-cultural and strategic (Celce-Murcia, Dornyei, & Thurrell, 1997).


Linguistic Theory: Chomsky

The communicative competence concept began developing in the early 1970s, when Hymes (1972) rejected Chomsky's (1965) theory concerning a distinction between linguistic competence and linguistic performance. According to Chomsky, linguistic theory was mainly concerned with the study of an ideal listener or speaker, who, in an ideal homogenized speech community, unaffected by interferences such as memory loss, distractions, and other random limitations, would produce a perfect grammar. Chomsky called the idealized capacity for language production a speaker's competence and the actual language produced the speaker's performance. Performance, according to Chomsky, rarely realizes the idealized possibilities of which a speaker is capable.

Hymes rejected several aspects of Chomsky's theory on the grounds that it did not account for socio-cultural factors that affect performance. Instead of viewing language performances that strayed from a perfect, idealized usage as mistakes, Hymes argued that these performances actually demonstrated another type of competence: the ability to apply social rules to language.

Hymes broadened the definition of competence, arguing that there are several components of communicative competence, only one of which is grammatical knowledge. He suggested four questions that an integrated theory of linguistics, communication, and culture (aka communicative competence) must be concerned with. These were:

• Whether, and to what degree, something is formallypossible

• Whether, and to what degree, something isfeasible in virtue of the means of implementation

• Whether, and to what degree, something isappropriate (adequate, happy, successful) in relation to the context in which it is used and evaluated

• Whether, and to what degree, something is in factdone, or performed, and what its doing entails (Hymes, 1972, p. 281).

Speech Act Theory

Following Hyme's introduction of the term, the field of research on communicative competence quickly expanded. In the field of pragmatics, speech act theory (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969, 1975), which classifies language according to communicative functions, became a prominent means for analyzing communicative competence. According to the theory, communicative functions are realized through the performance of speech acts – minimal units of discourse – such as thanking, greeting, requesting, apologizing, etc. Through the study of speech acts, linguists have developed a more specific understanding of what kind of language is deemed communicatively competent in specific contexts.

Language Acquisition

Language acquisition researchers sought to understand when and how communicative competence is learned. Studies on the language of children suggest that by the age of three or four, children are already varying their register – defined as systematic language patterns used in specific types of situations – to meet the demands of context (Anderson, 1990). In the second language acquisition field, researchers compared the development of communicative competence in native speakers to language learners in order to identify and understand existing differences. A major question linguists asked in this field was how an individual's knowledge of first language rules for communicative competence affected his or her ability to competently communicate in his or her second language.

Strategic Competence

In the 1970s, Savignon added to the definition of communicative competence by using the term to describe...

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