To understand the full significance of communicative competence we must analyze the nature of communication and identify some of its basic features.
A careful analysis shows that (after Richard and Rogers, 1986):
• Communication is meaning-based:
– Communication aims to convey meaning through a variety of channels: language, paralanguage etc.;
– In linguistic exchanges, interlocutors cooperate: they produce messages that are meaningful and relevant for the interlocutors and the given situational context.
• Communication is interactional:
– Communication requires at least two participants who interact; meaning is not inherent in words/phrases, but negotiated between the interlocutors; much of the speaker’s information is merely implied, and the listener’s task is to make the proper inferences to decode the speaker’s intended meaning;
• Communication is structured:
– Human communication consists of a boundless range of discourse types: e.g. the journalistic discourse, the political discourse, that of the Church, of the court of law, the discourse of advertising, of classroom interactions, of casual discussion or telephone conversation, of letter writing etc.;
– Each discourse type has its own typical structure: the structure of speech is quite different from that of writing; the organization of political speech is different from that of telephone conversation; the layout and format of a newspaper article is quite different from that of a letter etc.
• Communication is conventional – the participants in a communicative exchange observe certain social conventions concerning the relationship between:
– The interactants: e.g. social coexistence requires that the speaker should address his/her boss formally and his/her peers informally;
– The speaker and the context in which the exchange takes place: e.g. an official setting (a classroom, a church, a court of law) imposes formality of style even among persons who are otherwise on friendly terms.
• Communication is appropriate – interlocutors adapt their discourse to:
– The relative social status between the speaker and the listener (their respective age, sex, position, familiarity etc.) and the roles they assume in the communicative exchange (e.g. teacher/student, doctor/patient, shop assistant/customer);
– The physical and temporal setting, and the activity type (shopping, seeing a doctor, an interview); speaking informally to your teacher brings about social sanctions; addressing your best friend too formally will make him think you are making fun of him;
– The discourse type: official or informal letters, application forms, telephone conversations etc., each requires a different kind of vocabulary and certain conversational formulas.
Dimensions of communicative competence
The above analysis triggers the conclusion that communicative competence has a much wider scope than mere linguistic competence. We can identify at least five dimensions of communicative competence (after Canale and Swain, 1980), namely:
1. Linguistic competence, i.e. the speaker’s ability to use the language accurately (correctly):
• the speaker’s ability to recognize and produce grammatically and semantically well-formed sentences/utterances; his/her ability to decode figurative language etc.;
• the speaker’s linguistic competence is related to his/her knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar of the language.
2. Sociolinguistic competence, i.e. the speaker’s ability to use the language appropriately with respect to the social environment:
• the speaker’s ability to recognize and adapt his/her messages to the interlocutors, the social and situational context in which the exchange takes place, the activity type etc.;
• choice of topic, vocabulary and style, according to the social context ( a certain kind of language/certain topics can be shared in private, but are banned from larger social encounters);
• sociolinguistic competence results from the speaker’s knowledge of society, of its norms and taboos;
3. Discourse competence, i.e. the speaker’s ability to recognize and use the language appropriately with respect to the type of discourse:
• the speaker’s ability to identify the type of discourse and interpret messages accordingly: e.g. today’s world experienced receiver of the message Always Coca-Cola! knows that, since it belongs to the discourse of advertising, it actually means “Buy Coca-Cola!”;
• the ability of the speaker to adapt his/her language to the discourse type: e.g. knowledge of the formulaic expressions for telephone conversation, greeting and parting formulas; e.g. a competent letter writer knows the letter-closing formula, I look forward to hearing from you!;
4. Strategic competence, i.e. the speaker’s ability to use language:
• functionally: using the language to perform actions; language can be an efficient substitute for action, e.g. “peace talks” can often avoid open conflicts;
• strategically: using linguistic strategies:
– of repair, to cover personal inadequacies;
– of indirectness and politeness, to obtain real-world advantages and/or avoid negative consequences: e.g. to avoid imposing or hurting feelings; to create a favorable atmosphere; a joke can be more effective than a hundred words; a persuasive presentation can get the speaker a good job or save it;
5. Cultural competence, i.e. knowledge of elements of culture and civilization of the foreign language environment: the competent communicator knows facts pertaining to the country, the people, the history, literature and culture of the target language; therefore, learning a foreign language also involves learning about the world and type of society the native speakers of the language live in: their holidays, their religion, educational and political system, their type of humor, their history and literature etc.
In other words, communicative competence means ability to use the language:
• accurately, i.e. correctly in terms of vocabulary and grammar;
• appropriately, i.e. adapted to the social/situational context in which the exchange takes place and to the discourse type;
• functionally and strategically, i.e. using the language tactfully and politely, to get things done and achieve real-world aims;
• competently, in terms of cultural background.
Apart from “knowledge of the code” (i.e. of the vocabulary and grammar), knowledge of the language also requires possession of language skills, i.e. of skills/abilities that allow the speaker to interact linguistically with the other members of the social group.
In face-to-face interaction, you cannot know what you are required to say unless you understand what your interlocutor is telling you. Lack of listening skills – inability to make head or tail of the interlocutor’s words – is especially frustrating when visiting the country whose language one is learning: the correctly phrased question Could you please tell me how to get to…? becomes useless when the person asked begins to pour out a long explanation that is completely beyond the learner’s comprehension.
Obviously, listening skills cannot be separated from speaking skills: the receiver of the message must be able to express his/her thoughts and feelings coherently, at normal speed and with comprehensible pronunciation. Many people complain that they understand very well the text of movies and songs, or messages on the Internet, but when it comes to speaking “they can’t find the words”. The reason is that they lack speaking skills. A person who knows the language must be able to say what s/he wants to say, when s/he wants to say it, the way s/he wants to say it etc. Absence of speaking skills becomes embarrassing in real-life communicative situations (e.g. conversations), where exchanges are rapid and there is no time to think and build up one’s sentences. Such situations make many people – especially shy ones – lose heart and give up any attempts to participate in the conversation.
Furthermore, since much of daily communication is written the language user must also know how to decode messages written in the target language, i.e. s/he must possess reading skills. Whether these are instructions of usage for a certain electronic device or some household advice (e.g. how to prepare a certain instant pudding), useful travel tips in a guidebook, an article in a magazine, or Internet information, it is frustrating to be unable to work out its meaning.
Finally, an educated person must also know how to express his/her thoughts in writing: s/he must possess writing skills. When crossing the border applying for a job abroad, or simply chatting on the Internet, it is painful and/or time consuming not to be able to fill out forms with one’s personal information, write letters, or give coherent replies.
To conclude, the ultimate aim of the foreign language class is to develop the students’ communicative skills (i.e. their ability to use the language appropriately, functionally and strategically, so as to interact efficiently with the other members of the social group) as well as their cultural skill (i.e. knowledge of the linguistic and non-linguistic customs and habits typical for the target language environment). The foreign language student must learn to master communicative and cultural skills similar to those of the native speaker: they will need such skills later on, in the real world, with its boundless variety of relationships and communicative situations.
Obviously, then classroom provides only a limited range of communicative interactions – those typical for the physical situation and the teacher-student/student-student relationships. It is therefore the foreign language teacher’s duty to use the classroom as a kind of laboratory and organize activities that should simulate real-world exchanges. S/he must stretch his/her imagination and expand the classroom context so as to enable the students to use language realistically and interactively.
Canale, M. & M. Swain (1980a). Theory of Language Assessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Richards, J.C. & T.S. Rogers (1986). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wright, T. (1987). Roles of Teachers and Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press.