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Communicative Competence and Analysis of its Components

1. Introduction

Many linguists have attempted to describe the general properties or

characteristics of all languages. It does little good to discuss language outside the

framework provided by communication. While language is not essential for

communication, the reverse is not true.

Language is a shared code that enables users to transmit ideas and desires

to one another. It is shared by these language users because they wish to

communicate. No one in his right mind would devise or learn such a complex

system without purpose in mind.

Therefore, communication is definable as a “mutual exchange between two

or more individuals which enhances cooperation and establishes commonality”.

Communicative competence is, of course, competence or ability to

communicate. It concerns both spoken or written language and all four language

skills. Some people mistakenly think of communication as occurring only through

the medium of speech, in the following topic we will check that there is room for

communication regarding some other mediums.

2. Communicative Competence

2.1. The Concept of Communicative Competence

The study of language acquisition has been strongly influenced by the theory

of generative grammar. Chomsky (1968) has argued that the speed with which

children are able to infer the grammatical rules underlying the speech they hear

about them, and then to use these rules for the construction of utterances they

have never heard before, suggests that children born with a knowledge of the

formal principles which determine the grammatical structure of the language.

This is the “rationalist” hypothesis.

It has been criticised by Campbell and Wales (1970) who argue that

Chomsky and many of the psychologists who have influenced him have failed to

give sufficient attention to the environmental factors involved in the

development of what they call communicative competence. They bestow the

greatest importance to the speaker´s “communicative” ability (which seems to

correspond quite closely with Halliday´s textual function).

According to Halliday, the textual function of language has to provide links

with itself and with features of the situation in which it is used. This is what enables

the speaker or writer to construct “text”, or connected passages of discourse that is

situationally relevant; and enables the listener or the reader to distinguish a text

from a random set of sentences. So the utterances of a text will only fit certain

situations that define the appropriate language use.

The ability to use one’s language in a variety of socially determined

situations is as much as central a part of linguistics “competence” as the ability to

produce grammatically well-formed sentences.

2.2. The First Language Acquisition of Communicative Competence

We now turn to the problem of explaining the acquisition of communicative

competence. Campbell and Wales believe that much more attention must be paid to

the linguistic environment of the developing child than has been given in the

recent past. Among the questions that might be investigated are the following:

a) Is there a tendency among parents to simplify their speech when

addressing children? And, if so, what form does this simplification take?

b) How do parents react to non-comprehension or mis-comprehension

and how do they modify their subsequent questions or constructions?

c) What sources of information are available to the developing child

about the well-formedness and appropriateness of his utterances or

about the accuracy of his comprehension?

d) How often do this or that constructions occur in the speech of parents?

e) In what contexts are these constructions used?

f) To what extent do parents correct, repeat, expand or elaborate the

speech of children and what form does this intervention take?

A linguist such as Brown has shown a clear awareness of the importance of

describing the communicative environment. He has shown, for example, that, for

the families on which he has data, “approval and disapproval” are primarily

linked to the truth value of the proposition which the adult fits to the child´s

generally incomplete and often deformed sentence. Explicit approval or disapproval

of either syntax or morphology is extremely rare in our record and so seems not

to be the force propelling the child from immature to mature forms.

2.3. From Communicative Competence to Second / Foreign language


This general interest in language for communication is viewed as a

promising departure from the narrower and still popular focus on language as


Communication is understood by Canale (1983) as the exchange and

negotiation of information between at least two individuals through the use of

verbal and non-verbal symbols. Information is assumed to consist of conceptual,

socio-cultural, affective and other content. In this sense communication involves

the continuous evaluation and negotiation of meaning on the part of the


In Canale and Swain (1980) communicative competence was

understood as the underlying systems of knowledge and skill required for

communication. Actual communication is the realization of such knowledge and

skill under limiting psychological and environmental conditions such as

memory and perceptual constraints, fatigue, nervousness, distractions and

interfering background noises.

The term “actual communication” is preferred by Canale (1983) since the

earlier term “performance”. The view in Canale and Swain is that communicative

competence is an essential part of actual communication but is reflected only,

and sometimes imperfectly (for example in random and inadvertent slips of the

tongue, mixing of registers) due to general limiting conditions.

They stress that communicative competence refers to both knowledge and

skill. The former refers here to what one knows (consciously and unconsciously)

about the language and about other aspects of communicative language use; the

latter refers to how well one can perform this knowledge in actual

communication, that is, in actual situations.

3. Analysis of the Components of Communicative Competence

The framework of study for communicative competence proposed four

areas of knowledge and skill: grammatical competence, sociolinguistic

competence, discourse competence and strategic competence.

3.1. Grammatical Competence

This type of competence remains concerned with mastery of the language

code (verbal or non-verbal) itself. Thus included here are features and rules of the

language such as vocabulary, word formation, sentence formation,

pronunciation, spelling and linguistic semantics. It should be noted that it is

still not clear that any current theory of grammar can be selected over others to

characterize this competence or in what ways a theory of grammar is directly

relevant for second language pedagogy.

Therefore we can think of grammar as being a central part of language

which related sound and meaning. The meaning of message conveyed by

language has to be converted into words put together according to grammatical

rules, and these words are then conveyed by sound. So meanings are conveyed,

via grammar, in sound.

Semantics   Grammar Phonology

But what about writing? One of the ideas which many people have about

grammar is that it has to do with the written language. But the written form of a

language is really only secondary to its spoken form, which developed first. We

learn to speak before we learn to write; and whereas we learn to speak our first

language naturally, without tuition, from the language we hear about us, we have

to be taught to write: that is, to convert our speech into a written or secondary
form. However, writing performs an extremely important function in our culture,

and so we shall view grammar as a mechanism for producing both speech and


Semantics  Grammar  Phonology or writing systems

3.2. Sociolinguistic Competence

Sociolinguistic competence addresses the extent to which utterances are

produced and understood appropriately in different sociolinguistic contexts

depending on contextual factors such as status of participants, purposes of the

interaction, and norms or conventions of interaction. Appropriateness of utterances

refers to both appropriateness of meaning and appropriateness of form.

Appropriateness of meaning concerns the extent to which particular communicative

situations, attitudes and ideas are judged to be proper in a given situation.

Appropriateness of form concerns the extent to which a given meaning is

represented in a verbal and/or non-verbal form that is proper in a given

sociolinguistic context.

There is a tendency in many second language programmes to treat

sociolinguistic competence as less important than grammatical competence. This

tendency ignores the fact that sociolinguistic competence is crucial in interpreting

utterances for their social meaning when it is not clear from the literal meaning of

utterances or from non-verbal cues.

Blum-Kulka (1980) distinguishes three types of rules that interact in

determining how effectively a given communication function is conveyed and

interpreted. Pragmatic rules refer to the situational preconditions that must be

satisfied to carry out a given communication function (i.e. to give a command, one

must have the right to do so). Social-appropriateness rules deal with whether or

not a given function would normally be conveyed at all and, if so, with how much

directness (i.e. asking a stranger how much he earns). Linguistic-realization

rules involve a number of considerations, such as the frequency with which a given

grammatical form is used to convey a given function, the number and structural
range of forms associated with each function, the generality of forms across

functions and situations, and the means of modulating the attitudinal tone of a

given function.

3.3. Discourse Competence

This type of competence concerns mastery of how to combine grammatical

forms and meanings to achieve a unified spoken or written text in different

genres. By genre is meant the type of text (Oral and written narrative,

argumentative essay, descriptive text…). Unity of a text is achieved through

cohesion in form and coherence in meaning. Cohesion deals with how

utterances are linked structurally and facilitates interpretation of a text. There

are a wide range of cohesion devices such as pronouns, synonyms, ellipsis,

conjunctions etc. Coherence refers to the relationships among the different

meanings in a text. For example, let´s pay attention to the following conversation,

taken from the work of Widdowson (1978):

Speaker A: That´s the telephone

Speaker B: I´m in the bath

Speaker A: OK

Although there is no overt signal of cohesion among these utterances,

Widdowson points out that they do form coherent discourse to the extent that A´s

first utterance functions as a request, that B´s reply function as an excuse for not

complying with A´s request, and that A´s final remark is an acceptance of B´s


It is reasonably clear that this notion of discourse knowledge and skill can

be distinguished from grammatical competence and sociolinguistic competence. For


Speaker A: What did the rain do?

Speaker B: The crops were destroyed by the rain

B´s reply is grammatical and sociolinguistically appropriate within our

framework but does not tie in well with A´s question. So we will come across texts
that can be regarded as correct under a grammatical and sociolinguistic point of

view but that do not work properly regarding the discourse competence. This

interaction of grammatical, sociolinguistic and discourse rules is suggestive of the

complexity of communicative competence and is consistent with the distinction that

is proposed here among these three areas of competence.

3.4. Strategic Competence

This component is composed of mastery of verbal and non-verbal

communication strategies that may be called into action for two main reasons:

1) To compensate for breakdowns in communication due to limiting

conditions in actual communication (i.e. momentary inability to recall

an idea) or to insufficient competence in one or more areas of the

communicative competence. One of the main devices used when

occurring such conditions is Paraphrase.

2) To enhance the effectiveness of communication (i.e. deliberately slow

and soft speech for rhetorical effect)

Communication strategies are crucial at the beginning stages of second

language learning. Learners must be encouraged to use such strategies (rather

than remain silent if they cannot produce grammatically accurate forms, for


One of the earliest typologies that assembled communication strategies in

an organized fashion was that of Tarone (1977).

1) Avoidance:

1.1) Topic avoidance: the speaker may avoid introducing certain

topics because of lack of sufficient vocabulary to discuss them.

1.2) Message abandonment: a speaker that does not possess

sufficient vocabulary or confidence to discuss that topic in the

target language may change the topic.

2) Paraphrase:

2.1) Approximation: lacking a word in the target language, the

speaker may choose an approximate word, such as a synonym

(shop instead of department store)

2.2) Word coinage: A word may be made up in an attempt to fill out

a gap in knowledge of a target language item. For example in the

following utterance the speaker lacked the word ice breaker:

Helsinki produces a lot of ice crushing ships.

2.3) Circumlotion: A paraphrase or description of a word may be

used when a word is unknown. For example: a place for books,

instead of a bookshelf.

3) Conscious transfer / borrowing:

3.1) Literal translation: The Spanish President of the Government,

instead of The Spanish Prime Minister.

3.2) Language switch: A word from the mother tongue may be used

when the target language word cannot be remembered:

A- I felt very…”cortado” you know?

B- You felt very shy?

A- Yes, shy!

4) Appeal for assistance: When a second-language user signals a need for

repair, the conversational partner is often forced to use a simple word or

structure, or to shift the topic to the beginning of the sentence where it

may be easier to identify:

A- Did you enjoy the ballet?

B- Huh?

A- The ballet…the dancing, on Friday night. Did you enjoy it?

5) Mime: The speaker may act out a word:

A- Then the plane… (mimes a plane taking off)

B- Is took off?
A- That´s it!

4. Conclusion

It is somewhat surprising that second language pedagogy has put skill-

oriented activities into practice only infrequently and sporadically. Concerns of a

practical nature are certainly important; but it is an exercise in futility and

frustration to employ essentially knowledge-oriented techniques that are insufficient

for attaining programme goals concerned with actual language use. Consider such a

state of affairs in other domains: for example, a driver training programme.

Suppose that such a driving programme focused on knowledge of traffic

laws, recognition of road signs, and how to operate an automobile-perhaps

including simulated or actual driving on a specifically designed and controlled

course-but provided not opportunity to drive in actual traffic. Suppose further that

for the students in such a programme this was their only exposure to driving, i.e.

that they were otherwise unfamiliar with automobiles and traffic. How well would

graduates of this programme fare in the real situation? To what extent would they

have gained sufficient confidence even to try to make use of training when placed

in actual traffic?

It may be useful to pursue this example further to clarify the necessity and

usefulness of knowledge-oriented and skill-oriented activities in second language

pedagogy. Of course it might also be the case that different learners prefer and

profit from different dosages of knowledge-oriented and skill-oriented teaching and

testing methods. Such learner differences are no doubt important, especially as

concerns motivation, and must therefore be handled by a theory of second

language learning. But the argument for different dosages of knowledge-oriented

and skill-oriented methods for certain learners is by no means an argument against

the necessity of both methods for the majority of learners.

This theoretical framework is intended to be applied to second language

teaching and testing. Such a communicative approach is thus an integrative one in

which the main goal is to prepare and encourage learners to exploit in an optimal

way their limited communicative competence in the second language in order to

participate in actual communication situations. It seems reasonable to assume that

quality of communication at initial stages of second language learning will depend

heavily on learners´ communicative competence in their dominant language,

teachers´ and learners´ motivations and attitudes, and the effective use of

communication strategies by both the learner and other participants in situations of