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A synthesis on Communicative competence

By Mounir Midoul (2011)


The term communicative competence was coined by Dell Hymes in

1966, reacting against the perceived inadequacy of Noam Chomsky's
(1965) demarcation of competence and performance. It is a concept that
has been variously discussed by many authors. In this article, I would
like to shed light on the debate that has taken place regarding the
definition of communicative competence in the second and foreign
language teaching literature.

The organization of this paper is as follows: In the first section, I will

discuss Chomskys dichotomy of competence and performance. In the
second section, I will discuss Hymes work regarding the term
communicative competence. In the third section, I will introduce some of
the most common views of other scholars regarding communicative
competence in the second and foreign language teaching literature,
namely Chomsky, Hymes, Halliday, Habermars, Canale and Swain.
Finally, in the fourth section, I will discuss the application of the notion
of communicative competence to language teaching.

Chomskys dichotomy of competence vs. performance:

The idea of communicative competence is originally derived from Noam

Chomskys widely known dichotomy of competence and performance. In his
book Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Chomsky (1965) makes a distinction
between competence and performance. He defines competence as the speaker-
hearers knowledge of the language in a completely homogeneous society. Such
underlying knowledge enables a user of a language to produce and understand
an infinite set of sentences out of a set of infinite set of rules. The
transformational grammar provides an explicit account of this tacit knowledge
of language structure, which is actually not conscious but is necessarily implicit.

Performance, on the other hand, is concerned with the process of applying

the underlying knowledge to the actual language use. From these two
definitions, it seems that Chomsky obviously equates the term competence with
knowledge, and separates it from socio-cultural features. Furthermore, he
considers the term competence as an absolute quality. That is to say, a static
concept that characterizes individuals, and which cannot be compared with
another persons competence. (as cited in Taylor, 1986).

Hymes concept of communicative competence:

As a result of this restricted view of competence, Chomsky has received

much criticism by many authors, particularly Dell Hymes. In his article On
communicative Competence, Hymes (1972) points out that Chomsky's
competence vs. performance model is too narrow to describe language behavior
as a whole. He believes that Chomskys view of competence is too idealized to
describe actual language behavior, and therefore his view of performance is an
incomplete reflection of competence. For Hymes, Chomskys linguistic theory
represents a viewpoint that dismisses central questions of use in the area of
performance. Hymes points out that the theory does not account for socio-
cultural factors or differential competence in a heterogeneous speech

Hymes maintains that social life affects not only outward performance, but
also inner competence itself. He argues that social factors interfere with or
restrict grammar use because the rules of use are dominant over the rules of
grammar. Hymes further explains this to claim that rules of speech are
controlling factors for the linguistic form as a whole. He says:
Just as rules of syntax can control aspects of phonology, and just as semantic rules
perhaps control aspects of syntax, so rules of speech acts enter as a controlling factor
for linguistic form as a whole. (as cited in Taylor, 1986, p. 155)

Hymes concludes that a linguistic theory must be able to deal with a

heterogeneous speech community, differential competence and the role of socio-
cultural features. He believes that we should be concerned more with
performance, which he defines as the actual use of language in a concrete
situation, not an idealized speaker-listener situation in a completely
homogeneous speech community. Hymes deems it necessary to make a
distinction between two kinds of competence: linguistic competence that deals
with producing and understanding grammatically correct sentences, and
communicative competence that deals with producing and understanding
sentences that are appropriate and acceptable to a particular situation. He points
out that speakers of a language have to have more than grammatical competence
in order to be able to communicate effectively in a language. He points out:
There are rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless.
(as cited in Taylor, 1986, p. 155)

Thus, Hymes coins the term communicative competence and defines it as

the knowledge of the rules for understanding and producing both the referential
and social meaning of knowledge. According to Hymes this notion is comprised
of knowledge and abilities of four types:

Whether (and to what degree) something is formally possible;

Whether (and to what degree) something is feasible in virtue of the means of

implementation available;

Whether (and to what degree) something is appropriate (adequate, happy, successful)

in relation to a context in which it is used and evaluated;

Whether (and to what degree) something is in fact done, actually performed, and
what it is doing entails (Hymes, 1971; as cited in Munby, p. 15)

Actually, communicative competence is viewed by Hymes as the interaction

of grammatical (what is formally possible), psycholinguistic (what is feasible in
terms of human information processing), socio-cultural (what is the social
meaning or value of a given utterance) and probabilistic (what actually occurs)
system of competence.

We have seen so far that it is the Chomskyan distinction between

competence and performance that has been at the root cause of the creation of
term communicative competence. It is a notion that includes Chomskyan
grammatical competence as one of its components. In the following section, we
will see other views of scholars concerning the notion of communicative

Other scholars views on the concept of competence


An important contribution in the debate of the term communicative

competence is that by Habermas (1970). He preserves Chomskys dichotomy of
competence and performance, but as Hymes, he criticizes Chomskys
conception of competence as mono-logical capability, as it provides an
inadequate basis for the development of general semantics, and it fails to take
into consideration the dimension of communication. Habermas argues that in
order to take part in normal discourse, the speaker must have in addition to his
linguistic competence basic qualifications of speech and of symbolic interaction
at his disposal, which is communicative competence. So, the view of Habermars
of communicative competence is that it comprises knowledge of the universal
formal features of language which make human communication possible. (as
cited in Munby, 1968).

Halliday (1971) as Hymes is interested in language in its social perspective.

His approach to the language users competence is distinct from Habermars and
Chomskys in the sense that he rejects the distinction between competence and
performance as being of little use in a sociological context. He points out:

Here we shall not need to draw a distinction between an idealized knowledge of the
language and its actualized use: between the code and the use of the code or
between competence and performance. (as cited in Munby, 1978, p. 12)
He goes on to say that this distinction is unnecessary or misleading:

Such dichotomy runs the risk of being either unnecessary or misleading: unnecessary
if it is just another name for the distinction between that we have been able to
describe in the grammar and what we have not and misleading in any other
interpretation. (as cited in Munby, 1978, p. 12)

However, he has developed another approach, a socio-semantic approach to the

speakers use of language. In his approach, he defines the notion of meaning
potential, a sets of semantic options that are available to the speaker-hearer.
This notion relates behavior potential to lexico-grammatical potential. That is,
what the speaker can do, can mean, and can say. These three stages display
systematic options at the disposal of the speaker. Besides, he adds that his
meaning potential is unlike Chomskys notion of competence, but is not unlike
Hymes communicative competence although it is developed on grounds of
Chomskyian sense of what the speakers, which is different from his sense of
what he can do.

Another important view of the term communicative competence is that in

Canale and Swains article: Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to
Second Language Teaching and Testing, Canale and Swain (1980) believe that
the sociolinguistic work of Hymes is important to the development of
communicative approach to language learning. Their work focuses on the
interaction of social context, grammar and meaning. However, just as Hymes
said that there are some rules of language use that would be useless without
which rules of grammar, Canal and Swain maintain that there are some rules of
language use that would be useless without rules of grammar. For example, one
may have an adequate level of sociolinguistic competence in Canadian French
just from having developed such a competence in Canadian English; but without
some minimal of grammatical competence in French, it is unlikely that one
could communicate effectively with a monolingual speaker of Canadian French.
They strongly believed that the study of grammatical competence is an essential
to the study of communicative competence as is the study of sociolinguistic
competence. Furthermore, they point out that no communicative competence
theorists have devoted any detailed attention to communicative strategies that
speakers use to handle breakdowns in communication. They put it this way:

With the exception of Savignon (1972) and Stern (1978, 1979), no communicative
competence theorists have devoted any detailed attention to communication
strategies that speakers employ to handle breakdowns in communication. (Canale &
Swain, 1980, p. 25)

Canale and Swain (1980) propose their own theory of communicative

competence that includes four main competencies: grammatical, sociolinguistic
and strategic competence (as cited in Savignon, 1983).

Grammatical competence encompasses knowledge of lexical items and of

rules of morphology, syntax, sentence-grammar semantics, and phonology. They
point out that grammatical competence will be an important concern for any
communicative approach whose goals include providing learners with
knowledge of how to determine and express accurately the literal meaning of

Sociolinguistic competence is made up of two sets of rules: sociolinguistic

rules of use and rules of discourse. They believe that knowledge of these rules
will be crucial in interpreting utterances of social meaning, particularly when
there is a low level of transparency between literal meaning of an utterance and
the speakers intention.

Finally, strategic competence is made up of verbal and non-verbal

communication strategies that may be called into action to compensate for
breakdowns in communication. Examples of communication breakdowns
include false starts, hesitations and other performance factors, avoiding
grammatical forms that have not been fully mastered, addressing strangers when
unsure of their social status, and keeping the communicative channel open. They
consider such strategies to be important aspects of communicative competence
that must be integrated with the other components. They say:

Such strategies will be of two main types: those that relate primarily to grammatical
competence (e.g. how to paraphrase grammatical forms that one has not mastered or
cannot recall momentarily) and those that relate more to sociolinguistic competence
(e.g. various role-playing strategies, how to address the strangers when unsure of
their social status). (Canale & Swain, 1980, p. 30)

The applications of the concept of communicative competence

to language teaching:

Now, after discussing the different definitions of the concept communicative

competence in the literature, the question that we should raise is how to help our
students acquire communicative competence in the classroom.

Stern points out that language teaching can and should approach language
learning objectively and analytically through the study and practice of structural,
functional, and socio-cultural aspects. It should offer opportunities to live the
language as a personal experience through direct contact with the target
language community. (Stern, 1981)

Similarly, Rivers proposes methodological distinction between skill-getting

and skill-using activities. Through skill-getting activities, the teacher
isolates specific elements of knowledge or skill that compose communicative
ability, and provides the learner with opportunities to practice them separately.
Thus the learners are being trained in separate steps of communication skills
rather than practicing the total skill to be learned. In the skill-getting stage, the
students must learn to articulate acceptably and construct comprehensible
language sequences by rapid associations of rapid elements (Rivers, 1972)

Rivers maintains the importance of skill-using activities. In this stage the

learner should be on his own and not supported or directed by the teacher. He
may be working one-on-one with another student or with a small group of
students. In this type of practice, the student would be allowed to use anything
he knows of the language and any aids (gestures, pantomime, drawings, etc.) to
express his meaning when he is at a loss for words. Consequently, it offers an
opportunity for language acquisition. That is to say: the unconscious absorption
of language in real use.
Stern and rivers maintain that these two levels of language teaching (skill
getting and skill-using) should not be taught as strict sequencing of such
activities, but that a variable focus should offer the possibility of greater or
lesser emphasis on each aspect at different stages of a language program.

All in all, it seems that a number of different interpretations of the

notion communicative competence have been arisen in the second and
foreign language teaching literature. Even though they fail to clean up
the confusion concerning the definition of the notion of communicative
competence, they have contributed a great deal in our understanding of
language acquisition. Thus, we need as researchers to have a clear idea
about these theories and continue studying and clearing up this
confusion in the area of communicative competence in the hope of
designing successful models for foreign language teaching.

Canale, M. & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second

language teaching and testing. Applied linguistics, 1, 1-47.

Munby, J. (1978). Communicative syllabus design. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rivers, W. 1972. Talking off the tops of their heads. TESOL Quarterly, 6/1, 71- 81.

Stern, H.H. 1981. Communicative language teaching and learning: Toward a synthesis, in The

Second Language Classroom: Directions for the 1980s, Alatis, Altman & Alatis, Eds.

Savignon, Sandra J. (1983). Communicative Competence: Theory and Classroom Practice. USA:

Taylor, D. 1988. The meaning and use of the term competence in linguistics and applied

linguistics. Applied linguistics, 9, 148-167.