Tema 1- Lenguaje y comunicación. Funciones del lenguaje. La competencia comunicativa: sus componentes

Tema 1- Lenguaje y comunicación. Funciones del lenguaje. La competencia comunicativa: sus componentes

1 INDEX. 1









Since prehistoric times, human being has been able to communicate. Communication has existed in various forms since the first person appeared on Earth. However, over the years communication has changed notably. All animal species have perfected a system of communication, but humans are the only species capable of spoken language. Effective communication is essential for a variety of reasons. It serves to inform, motivate, establish authority and control, and allows for emotive expression. For humans, communication is also vital for creating a sense of social cohesion. Just as mankind has evolved over the centuries, our means of communication have followed suit. What began as primitive cave paintings and signed language has morphed into an endless variety of ways to express oneself to other humans. Achieving communicative competence then is one of the one person’s main goals in the first stages of life as is the ability to use language to communicate successfully. As a reaction of Chomsky’s definition of competence and performance, Dell Hymes was the first linguistic in coining the term Communicative Competence paying special attention to the sociolinguistic component. Hymes’ theory was further developed by other linguists such as Canale, Swaing and Sandra Savignon among others up to the extent that the education Spanish Education System introduced Linguistic Communicative Competence among one of the seven main aspects to achieve in the process of education of the Spanish citizens. This way, the main components of Communicative Competence according to Canale and Swain are grammatical, strategic, sociolinguistic and discourse competences. In this direction, some new methodological approaches have been drawn in education with the aim of achieving this competence. Finally, there are some symbolizing and framing patterns that function together in accordance with the social and cultural beliefs helping to clarify meaning in communication. This, the following dissertation provides with a general overview of the Communicative Competence and analyses its components with the aim of applying it to the ordinary classroom in secondary school so that students are aware of the outcomes that can merge in case of lack of linguistic accuracy and eventually achieve Communicative Competence on English according to the standards set by the Ministry of Education.


Communicative competence is defined as the ability to produce and understand sentences appropriate to the social context in which they occur. That is to say, it is the unconscious knowledge of the rules governing the appropriate use of the language in social situations. This term was coined by Dell Hymes on his paper “On communicative Competence”. However, Hymes’ theories were clearly influenced by Chomsky, who established a distinction between competence and performance. For him, competence refers to the innate knowledge of a language an ideal speaker has in a homogeneous speech community. This knowledge is conceived as an idealized static knowledge of phonological and syntactic rules. Performance, on the other hand, refers to the actual production and rules of language usage. According to Chomsky, only the competence was the field of studies for linguists. Thus, he defined competence as a speaker-hearer’s underlying mental representation of grammatical rules. Nevertheless, for Hymes competence alone was not enough to explain a native speaker’s knowledge, as a native can not only use grammatically correct forms, but also to use them appropriately in a particular context. It deals then with the use of language in everyday communicative situations.

Therefore, Hymes introduced then the concept of communicative competence, paying special attention to the sociolinguistic component, which connected language and culture. Hymes stated that native speakers know more than just communicative competence. He expands Chomsky’s notion of grammaticality (competence) and acceptability (performance) into four parameters subsumed under the heading of communicative competence as something which is first, formally possible; secondly, feasible in virtue of the available means; thirdly, appropriate in relation to a context in which it is used and evaluated; and finally, something which is done, and actually performed. The reason these rules exist is that, although one can have linguistic competence, and consequently is able to produce linguistically correct sentences, if s/he lacks the knowledge of the competence for use, s/he will not be able to communicate effectively. Hymes distinguished four foreign aspects; systematic potential, appropriacy, occurrence and feasibility.


Canale and Swain developed the Hymes’ notion of Communicative Competence on their study “Theoretical Bases of Communicative Competence Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing” (1980). They subdivided the notion of Communicative Competence into three components; grammatical competence, strategic competence and sociolinguistic competence. However, this study was further developed three years later by Canale is his paper “from Communicative Competence to Communicative Language Pedagogy” (1983) in which he separated discourse competence from sociolinguistic competence, to make it an autonomous fourth component.

Grammatical competence is knowledge of the language code, including knowledge of lexical items and of rules of morphology syntax, sentence-grammar semantics, and phonology.

Strategic competence is verbal and non-verbal communication strategies that may be called into action to compensate for breakdowns in communication due to either performance variables or to insufficient competence.

Sociolinguistic competence is the knowledge of producing and understanding appropriately in different sociolinguistic contexts depending on contextual factors such as status of participants, purposes of the interaction, and norms or conventions in interaction.

Finally, Discourse competence is the knowledge of rules for the combination of grammatical forms and meanings to achieve a unified spoken or written text in different genres. The unity of a text is achieved through cohesion in form and coherence in meaning.

Sandra J. Savignon (1983) saw Communicative competence as a dynamic rather than a static concept. It depends on the negotiation of meaning between two or more people who share to some degree the same symbolic system. In this sense, then, communicative competence can be said to be an interpersonal rather than an intrapersonal trait. Communicative competence is relative, not absolute, and depends on the cooperation of all the participants involved.


The current education law determines the linguistic competence as one of the seven competences to develop alongside the education process of the Spanish students. At this point, it becomes necessary to make a distinction between the communicative competence and the linguistic competence. While the former is understood as the knowledge which enables someone to use a language effectively, and their ability to actually use this knowledge for communication, the latest is the unconscious knowledge of the formal patterning of language in a person. Communicative competence includes someone’s formal patterning of language.

The Spanish educational authorities followed Canale’s model in the 90s and the one made by The Council of Europe when establishing the Common European Framework of Reference for languages to establish the five sub-competences of the communication linguistic competence. Grammar competence then turns up when the speaker uses the set of rules of the language either learned in case of the foreign language or unconsciously acquired in case of the first language to create an infinite number of sentences. Discourse or pragmatic competence is achieved when the language employed is appropriate in a given situation and can produce longer stretches of language, appropriately linked to form a meaningful, unified whole. Sociolinguistic competence is based on the ability to adapt the language to a specific context. Strategic competence relies on the ability to use verbal and non-verbal communication strategies to improve the effectiveness of communication. Finally, sociocultural competence does not appear as a separate element but it blends together with sociolinguistic aspects and is achieved when the speaker is familiar with the social and cultural context in which native speakers use their language.

Over the last decades, new communicative approaches to language teaching have merged as a good alternative to the traditional teaching of grammar and translation methods. For example, in many cases teaching of English as a second language tends to be more learner-centered. That is to say, students take on more active roles in the classroom and the teacher plays the part of “facilitator”. Furthermore, the acquisition of new linguistic forms tends to correlate to situational settings and the cultural environment in general. In addition, more emphasis is put on the use of language than on the analysis of its structure. Finally, the production and comprehension is given more importance than years ago, when the focus was put in the use of grammar.


Meaning is not the simple result of transmitting appropriate sentences but derives from the context of ongoing interaction. According to Loveday (1982), to better understand the Communicative Competence it is necessary to bear in mind two patterns that function together in accordance with the social and cultural beliefs helping to clarify sense; symbolizing and framing patterns. They are both employed without an awareness of their cultural specify.

On the one hand, symbolizing patterns are the various channels available for transmitting and estimating meaning which include linguistic forms (phonetic, grammatical, lexical) and non-verbal forms such as gesture or appearance. For example, in languages as English, the indirect speech in which the surface form differ from the social function is more used than in other languages. Other forms like modal verbs, indefinite pronouns or the passive are essential for the establishment and maintenance of satisfactory social relations. The problem of linguistic appropriacy is one of the key-concepts in communicative competence. Every speech-community possesses a stock of ritual routines, which should be studied when learning the target language. Other symbolic codes are the paralinguistic channels, which are the vocal, kinetic and proxemic channels. The vocal channel deals with the tone of the voice and gives important information as age, sex and even social status. The kinetic channel is important due to the amount of information that can be conveyed using body language or even facial expressions. In this case, gestural code is wider in Spanish than in English. Finally, the proxemic channel has to do with the acceptable distance between two people in a conversation. In Spanish, for example is closer that between English people.

On the other hand, framing patterns refer to the principles and conventions which connect, compose, and regulate communicative behavior but which are not intrinsically symbolic. It refers to mechanisms used by speakers to manage their self-presentation in communication according to social expectations and norms. It is said that the person who speaks first tends to control the topic of the conversation. Language communities differ in the amount of speech necessary for appropriate and successful interaction or in the timing of verbal exchanges among others. This way, some communities expect immediate responses from interlocutors while in others they leave some pauses between each statement. Two fundamental framing patterns to organize concepts in language are chunking and sequencing


To sum up, figuring out about theories of linguistics such as Hymes, Swain or Savignon made us better comprehend not only Communicative Competence itself but also its components established by the Spanish authorities. As one of the main goals in secondary school is to achieve Linguistic Communication Competence, every subject should address it, especially English as a Foreign language. Thus, new approaches have merged with the aim of developing skills that traditionally have not been given much importance such as the production or comprehension of oral texts. Thus, the teaching of a language is moving towards a more student-centered model and eventually students acquire a higher level on Communicative Competence, what means that they develop their ability to use language appropriately depending on the given context. From cave paintings to these days, communication has completely changed and probably more changes have to come, so the only way to progress is adapting to the changing society and provide the students with updated methodologies.


Canale, M. & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing. Applied linguistics, 1, 1-47

Canale, M. (1983). From Communicative Competence to Communicative Language Pedagogy. Eds. Richards and R. Schmidt in Language and Communication. New York, Longman.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hymes, D. (1972) On Communicative competence. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Loveday, L. J. (1986). The Sociolinguistics of Learning and Using a Non-native Language. Oxford, Pergamon Press

Savignon, S. J. (1983). Communicative competence: Theory and classroom practice: texts and contexts in second language learning. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.