Topic 3 – The communication process. Language functions. Language in use. Negotiation of meaning

Topic 3 – The communication process. Language functions. Language in use. Negotiation of meaning



1.1. Aims of the unit.

1.2. Notes on bibliography.


2.1. Earlier approaches.

2.2. Language and communication.

2.3. Types of communication: verbal vs non-verbal.

2.4. Characteristics of communication.

2.4.1. Elements of the communication process.

2.4.2. The human vocal tract.


3.1. The role of functionalist theories.

3.2. Models of communication: a linguistic classification.

3.2.1. Saussure’s model.

3.2.2. Bühler’s model.

3.2.3. Halliday’s model.

3.2.4. Jakobson’s model. Jakobson’s Model of Communicative Functions. Jakobson’s Constitutive Factors.


4.1. A theoretical background to language in use and the negotiation of meaning.

4.1.1. Three fundamentals on a theory of language.

4.1.2. The influential role of semantics and pragmatics.

4.1.3. The influential role of sociolinguistics.

4.1.4. Approaches to language use and the negotiation of meaning.

4.2. Language in use.

4.2.1. On defining language in use.

4.2.2. Two le vels at language in use.

4.3. The negotiation of meaning.

4.3.1. On defining the negotiation of meaning.

4.3.2. Strategies and tactics in the negotiation of meaning.

4.3.3. Key concepts in the negotiation of meaning: register and discourse.





1.1. Aims of the unit.

For a broad introduction to the relationship of language to the concept of communication, the study will survey the origins and emergence of language within human biological and cultural evolution in order to understand the instrumental role of language for humankind. Upon this basis, human language and other non-human systems of communication will be overviewed, and we will also consider the main characteristics involved in the study of the communication process, such as its elements and the role of the human vocal tract.. An overview of approaches to the structure of language will provide a background for the main models of communication, and therefore, the active functionality of language will also be approached within the most outstanding models of language theory. In an effort to understand language in use and the negotiation of meaning , we will offer a theoretical background which includes the most important aspects involved in these processes. Finally, the presentation will conclude with the most relevant aspects on present-day directions in the communication process.

1.2. Notes on bibliography.

An influential introduction to the relationship of language to the concept of communication is provided by David Crystal, Linguistics (1985), as well as the study that surveys the origins and emergence of language within human biological and cultural evolution in order to understand the instrumental role of language. Among the general works that incorporate the characteristics of the communication process, see especially Halliday, Explorations in the Functions of Language (1975), and Wilga M. Rivers, Teaching Foreign -Language Skills (1981). Of great historical importance and permanent value on models of communication is the translation to Ferdinand de Saussure’s work under the title Cours de linguistique générale (1983) and Halliday, An Introduction to Functional Grammar (1985). For a theoretical background to fundamental levels of language, see Rivers (1981). Introductions to linguistic approaches and the influence of semantics, pragmatics and sociolinguistic on language, include Halliday (1975), and Hymes (1972). Classic works on language in use and the negotiation of meaning are given by other founders of modern linguistics such as Ellis (1985) and Hymes (1972). For current statistics and references, see the journals Asociación Española de Lingüística Aplicada (AESLA) listed in the section of bibliography. For further references, see Revista CERCLE del Centro Europeo de Recursos Culturales Lingüísticos y Educativos (Servicio de Programas Educativos. Consejería de Educación y Cultura) and within a technological framework, see


There is more to communication than just one person speaking and another one listening. Human communication processes are quite complex. We differentiate verbal and non-verbal, oral and written, formal and informal, and intentional and unintentional communication. In addition, there is human and animal communication, and nowadays we may also refer to human-computer communication.

In this chapter, we will first briefly provide a historical background for the need of communicating and the way of presenting reality through messages. We will also provide a link to the relationship of language and communication, and on defining the concept of communication, we will describe the main features within the communication process. Another section will examine the concept of language from a linguistic theory; and finally, the distinction verbal and non-verbal will be approached in terms of the communication process, and elements involved in it.

2.1. Earlier approaches.

Since ancient times the way of improving communication preoccupied humans beings as they had a need to express some basic structures of the world and of human life, such as feelings, attitudes and everyday situations. This development in the direction of the study of meaning was labelled during the last century under the term semantics, which had a linked sense with the science related to the study of signs, semiotics.

Studies of symbolism began in the modern sense of the word only when people had learned to analyse the content of a message from the form. Thus, G.F.W. Hegel (1170-1831) laid down the road for later research in the field when he considered Babylonian and Egyptian architecture to be the best exponent of early symbolism when linking nature to religious thoughts. In fact, the earliest real study on the logic of symbolism was given by Edmund Burke (1729-97) in his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful from 1757. In it, Burke gives numerous examples of architecture linked to expressing feelings.

The first attempt to formulate a science of signs dates from the late nineteenth century, when a French linguist, Michel Bréal, published Essai de sémantique (1897), which was a philological study of language. Some years later, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) divided language into two components, symbols, and syntax as it is stated in his book, Cours de linguistique générale (trans.1983). It is relevant to mention that, in the first half of the twentieth century, phonology and grammar were included in the study of meaning as another branch of linguistics.

Grammar and phonology were included as post-Saussurean semantics in the study of meaning as a branch of linguistics. Both were concerned with relations within language (sense) and relations between language and the world (reference). Generally, their study is known as structural or lexical semantics. Reference is concerned with the meaning of words and sentences in terms of the world of experience: the situations to which they refer or in which they occur.

2.2. Language and communication.

The human curiosity concerning language is no modern phenomenon. Language has been examined by linguists and philosophers for several millennia. Therefore, we can look back on a respectable stock of literature on the topic originating from the times of Ancient Greece until the present day. The result is a compendium of linguistic disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, neurology, and even computer science.

The concept of language has been approached by many linguists, but the most outstanding definition comes from Halliday (1973) who defines it as an instrument of social interaction with a clear communicative purpose. At this point, it is relevant to establish a distinction between human

language and other systems of communication, such as animal communication systems. For Malinowsky, a relevant anthropology figure, language had only two main purposes: pragmatic and ritual. The former refers to the practical use of language, either active by means of speech or narrative by means of written texts. The latter is concerned with the use of language associated to ceremonies, and also referred to as magic.

Among the design features of human language in opposition to other systems we may mention first, an auditory-vocal channel which only humans are endowed with. Secondly, the possibility for individuals to reproduce messages to say anything in any context, that is, interchangeability of messages . This ability is only restricted in certain ceremonial contexts such as church services, business meetings, and so on, where a fixed form is expected to be followed. Thirdly, productivity , as there is an infinite number of possible messages to be expressed, including the possibility to express invented things or lies. Fourth, displacement since we may talk about events remote in space or time, ni contrast to other animals that have no sense of the past and the future. Although some animals seem to possess abilities of displacement, they lack the freedom to apply this to new contexts, thus a bee to indicate a food setting. Fifth, duality as sounds with no intrinsic meaning may be combined in different ways to form elements with meaning. We talk about the concept of arbitrariness by which words and their meaning have no a priori connection. And finally, a traditional transmission , since language is transmitted from one generation to the next by a process of teaching and learning.

2.3. Types of communication: verbal vs non-verbal .

Following Crystal (1985), one of the main characteristics of language is that it is an essential tool of communication. Hence, the importance of studying ways and means of improving communication techniques through history with a highly elaborated signaling system, both spoken and written, which has had an immense impact on our everyday life. Thus, writing a letter, having a conversation, watching a play, or reading a magazine, among others, are instances of verbal communication by means of language. However, other means should be also taken into account, such as gestures, facial expressions, body language, touch and so on, given that non-verbal symbols are also components of the communication process.

Nevertheless, language may be studied as part of a much wider domain of enquiry, that is semiotics. This field investigates the study of signs in communication processes in general. It concerns itself with the analysis of both linguistic and non- linguistic signs as communicative devices and with their systems. Therefore, it deals with patterned human communication in all its modes and in all contexts.

When the act of communication is verbal, the code is the language. Regarding the structured use of the auditory- vocal channel, it may result in speech, but also non-verbal communicative uses of the vocal tract are possible by means of paralanguage, such as whistling or musical effects.

When we refer to non -verbal communication, visual and tactile modes are concerned. They may be used for a variety of linguistic purposes such as the use of sign languages. For instance, the receiver may get the message by sound (as in speech and birdsong), by sight (as in written language, reading, morse or traffic signs) or by touch (as in the Braille alphabet of the blind or secret codes).

2.4. Characteristics of communication.

For most of its history, the concept of communication has always been approached from different disciplines, such as anthropology, psychology, or sociology among others, in order to provide an appropriate definition for the term. Still, communication is traditionally understood as the exchange and negotiation of information between at least two individuals through the use of verbal and non- verbal symbols, oral and written, and production and comprehension pr ocesses (Halliday 1973).

From this definition we may conclude that the main features of the communication process are as follows. First, it is a form of social interaction, and therefore it is normally acquired and used in such an interaction. Secondly, it always has a purpose, that is, to communicate. Thirdly, it involves a high degree of unpredictability and creativity , and therefore, a successful and authentic communication should involve a reduction of uncertainty on behalf of the participants. Finally , the communication process involves both verbal and non -verbal language, such as gestures or body language.

The communication process involves certain elements and the use of linguistic symbols that mean something to those who take part in the process. These symbols are spoken words in oral communication and alphabetical units in written communication. Let us have a brief look at these elements in the next section.

2.4.1. Elements in the communication process.

One of the most productive schematic models of a communication system emerged from the speculations of the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982). Jakobson’s model of language functions is not the only one. We may find other linguists’ models such as Bühler’s tripartite system and Bronislaw Malinowski’s theory, to be examined in next sections.

Jakobson’s model clarity has made it become the best-known model to be followed on language theory. Following Jakobson (1960), this model can be used for a number of different purposes in the study of language and communication. It was introduced to explain how language works as the code of communication. Jakobson states that all acts of communication, be they written or oral, are based on six constituent elements. In his model, each element being primarily associated with one of the six functions of language he proposed, thus referential, emotive, conative, phatic, metalingual, and poetic, to be broadly examined in the next section, but now we will concentrate on the six elements in Jakobson’s model. They are as follows.

Any particular act of communication takes place in a situational context, and it involves a sender (or addresser) and a receiver (or addressee). It further involves a message which the sender transmits and which the receiver interprets . The message is formulated in a particular code, and for the whole thing to work, sender and receiver must be connected by a channel through which the message is sent. In acoustic communication it consists of air, in written communication of paper or other writing materials.

As we have stated before, each of these elements has a correspondent in the functions of language, which we will be dealing with in the following section. But before, we will provide a brief overview of the relationship between the components and their functions. Thus, the referential function refers to the context, to what is being spoken of and what is being referred to. The attitude of the addresser (or encoder) is related to the emotive or expressive function through emphasis, intona tion, loudness, or pace, etc. On the other hand, the response in the addressee (or decoder) is associated to the connative function. The poetic function focuses on the message by means of associations (equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonyms and antonyms); repetitions of sound values, stresses, accents; and the word and phrase boundaries and relationships. The metalinguistic function is related to the use of the same codes for the message to be understood. Finally, the channel is associated to the phatic function, enabling both addresser and addressee to enter and stay in communication.

2.4.2. The human vocal tract.

For human beings, a relevant aspect is to communicate verbally, expressing thoughts with words. For the speaker to produce many differentiated sounds, only humans have been endowed with a highly sophisticated speech organ. Hence, this complex organ consists of consonants and vowels which are part of our vocal apparatus as a limited set of speech sounds.

However, it enables us to use our language in a very economic way for a virtually infinite production of linguistic units. Linguistically speaking, the distinctive speech sounds are called phonemes which are meaningless by themselves. However, we can assemble and reassemble phonemes into la rger linguistic units, commonly called words. In spite of our limited capacity to produce new phonemes, our capacity to produce vocabulary is unlimited.


On defining the word function (Jakobson 1960), we may say it is considered to be a synonym of use. However, when dealing with language, it is related to the way people use language. Therefore, when we refer to the functions of language, we are actually talking about the properties of language, and the purposes it is used for by individuals.

Several classifications of linguistic functions have been attempted by different scholars through different disciplines to be examined in this section. Given the communicative interaction aspect of language, it is absolutely necessary to establish the different purposes for which communication may serve. Thus, linguistics focuses on syntax and the forms of language; semantics, on the meaning of language, and finally, pragmatics is related to the use and function of language itself.

3.1. The role of functionalist theories.

Most theories of language development have approached the issue from one of two broad viewpoints. Thus, behaviourist linguists such as Skinner claimed that language is learnt by imitation, and innatist, as Chomsky, believed that we are born with the necessary cognitive equipment to learn language. However, these theories are not truly complete accounts of language development because they only begin to study from the first appearance of words and syntax; none considers how the child gets to this stage.

This is where functionalist theories attempted to redress the balance; by concentrating on the functions, or uses, of language, they hope to understand why and how a child begins to use language. For a functionalist theory the intention to communicate should be present before language itself appears. Another important feature is the crucial central role of the caretaker , usually the mother, in the child’s linguistic development, as from the earliest moment she treats the child as a conversational partner, gradually shaping the infant’s behaviour. Hence, the child is well-equipped with the knowledge of the social functions of language by the time he actually begins to speak.

3.2. Models of communication: a linguistic classification.

In this section, relevant figures on a theory of language and their models of communication are approached in terms of a classification of linguistic functions so as to answer the question of why people use language. In order to do so, the different purposes of communication are provided by different disciplines such as linguistics, which focuses on syntax and the forms of language; semantics, focusing on the meaning of language; and finally, pragmatics , which is related to the use and function of language itself in particular contexts.

Historically speaking, Plato was said to be the first to discuss an instrumentalist definition of language, and according to this definition, language primarily serves the purpose of communication, as it is a linguistic tool. Some centuries later, an anthropological perspective, brought about by Bronislaw Malinowski in his book The problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages (1923), states that language has only two main purposes: pragmatic and ritual. For him, the pragmatic function refers to the practical use of language, either active by means of speech or narrative by means of written texts. The ritual function is concerned with the use of language associated to ceremonies, and also referred to as magic. Further instances of linguistic and semantic purposes are broadly overviewed below within other linguists’ models.

Among all the proposals mentioned in next sections, coming from linguists such as Malinowsky, Saussure, Bühler, Halliday and Jakobson, we highlig ht the considerable impact of Jakobson’s work in all the literary and linguistic fields to which he contributed, such as anthropology, psychoanalysis discourse analysis, and especially in semiotics, where the structure of sign systems is studied. His influence was decisive on literary theory as there are still important works based on Jakobson’s theory, becoming a somewhat unusual afterlife theoretical writing.

3.2.1. Saussure’s model.

Saussure (trans.1983) devised a circular communication model on the basis of two premises. On the one hand, the first premise claims that communication is linear in that two people communicate in a way that a message is conveyed from one to the other. On the other hand, the second premise states that the participants in the communication process are both simultaneously active , in the way that they do not only listen, but they may answer or at least show some reaction.

On the basis of this understanding, Saussure shows the mechanisms of a dialogue. First, acoustic signals are sent from a speaker to a receiver. Saussure outlined two processes within this framework. The first one is phonation where the sender formulates mental signs in the mind and then gives acoustic shape to them. The second one is audition, and it is the opposite process of the receiver transforming the acoustic message into mental signs.

Part of the Saussurean model of the speech circuit consists of his model of the linguistic sign whose most important feature, is namely the division into acoustic shape, or acoustic image, and the idea related to the image, the mental concept. Hence, concept and acoustic image are transported in communication.

3.2.2. Shannon’s and Moles’ communication models.

In the second half of the twentieth century, we find two prominent figures within American literary theory, whose communication models inspired other linguists’ models on communicative functions as we will see in next sections. Thus, we refer to Shannon’s and Moles’ theory on communication process.

In 1949 a model on communicative function was developed by the American engineer Claude E. Shannon in his work A Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949). For him, communication is basically explained by certain elements such as a sender, a receiver, a channel, a message shaped in the way of input and output, and finally, external factors such as noise.

The first one, the input, is the intended message that is sent by a sender via a channel. Hence, the message received becomes, in turn, the output. During their transmiss ion, both input and output may be altered in quality by external circumstances to the process of communication. Thus, noise usually affects the channel of a telephone communication line, which in turn, affects the output as the outcome of the message.

Shannon devises various components of the communication process that will be described in detail. First of all, the input, that makes up the content of the message within a communicative intention; secondly, the sender, who encodes the message giving expressio n to the content; the third element is the channel, through which the message is sent. Thus, in oral communication we refer to air, and in written communication, we mean paper or writing material; in fourth place, noise which is considered in a communicative sense under phenomena such as a crushed or stained paper; fifth, the receiver who decodes the incoming message; and finally, the content, decoded by the receiver becomes the output.

During the 1960s, another American linguist, Moles, added the code as a crucial element for sender and receiver to communicate successfully. Shannon’s model served, then, as the basis for an improved model. For Moles, the sender and receiver must have a fundamental set of codes in common for successful communication. No matter if the speakers share or not the same language. Both of them have to rely on known words when communication is hardly impossible.

3.2.3. Bühler.

From Plato’s instrumental approach, Karl Bühler devised a model which described the communicative function s according to the instrumental approach given by Plato. From this instrumental approach, the main purpose of language is to communicate. Bühler defines the term language according to the Greek term ‘organum’ which means ‘tool’. He claims that language is an organum for one person to communicate with another about general things. Hence, the three main functions of language Bühler distinguishes in his model are representation, expression , and appeal. Which function applies to which communicative action depends on which relations of the linguistic sign are predominant in a communicative situation.

As a psychologist, Karl Bühler, established three functions within the framework of grammar from the point of view of the individual, thus, expressive , conative and representational functions. Bühler’s communication model is described as the process between a sender and a receiver by including a third element, the objects or states of affairs. Each act of communication is then attributed to a communicative function, depending on which of the three components involved was intended to be highlighted.

The expressive function is oriented towards the speaker, addressed to in first person. The conative function is oriented towards the addressee in second person, and finally, the representational function is oriented towards the rest of reality in third person. For Bühler, there is a distinction which portrays the two key features of the relationship between the sign and its physical realization. These are the phenomenon of the sound, that is the actual word spoken, and the linguistic sign. Both of them share common space in some functions of language, and extend beyond in other areas.

When the phenomenon sound contains more acoustic information than the sign does, Bühler defines it as abstractive relevance. For him, we are capable of highlighting the relevant information without being hindered by the elements of casual conversation, for instance, the “ahs” and “ehms”. Bühler also claims for an apperceptive enlargement. This means that part of the message may be lost, due to either misspellings or omissions on the part of the sender, or because the channel is subjected to noise. When this happens, we are still able to fill in the gaps to create a meaningful message, gathering somehow what we lost in conversation.

3.2.4. Halliday’s model.

In 1985, Halliday declared in his work An Introduction to Functional Grammar, that ‘the value of a theory lies in the use that can be made of it.’ The functional grammar model is concerned with a sociological model, that is, the ways in which language is used for different purposes and in different situations. Halliday emphasizes the functions of language in use by giving prominence to a social mode of expression, as register influences the selection from a language’s system. At this point, meaning is considered as a product of the relationship between the system and its environment, constructing reality as configurations of people, places, things, qualities and different circumstances.

To Hallida y (1985), language bridges from the cultural meanings of social context to sound or writing, by moving from higher orders of abstraction to lower ones, thus, semantics, lexicogrammar and phonology. Accordingly, messages combine an organization of content according to the receptive needs of the speaker and listener, and the meaning they are expressing. For Halliday, there are three macro-functions that, in combination, provide the basic functions on learning a foreign language. Thus, the macro -functions are mainly three, the ideational, the interpersonal, and the textual.

Ideational meanings, in the words of Halliday (1985), represent our experience of phenomena in the world framed by different processes and circumstances which are set in time by means of te nse and logical meanings. Interpersonal meanings are shaped by the resources of modality and mood to negotiate the proposals between interactants in terms of probability, obligation or inclination, and secondly, to establish and maintain an ongoing exchange of information by means of grammar through declaratives, questions, and commands. Textual meanings are concerned with the information as text in context at a lexicogrammatical level. Phonology is related arbitrarily to this function as its abstract wordings includes intonation, rhythm and syllabic and phonemic articulation.

On combining these interrelated functions, Halliday proposes seven basic functions on language use and they are listed as follows. Firstly, the instrumental to express desires and needs. Secondly, the regulatory where rules, instructions, orders, and suggestions are included. Thirdly, the interactional, where we may include patterns of greeting, leave-taking, thanking, good wishes, and excusing. Fourth, the personal function which encourages students to talk about themselves and express their feelings. Fifth, the heuristic function focuses on asking questions. Next, the imaginative function, which is used for supposing, hypothesizing, and creating for the love of sound and image. Finally, we find the informative function which emphasizes affirmative and negative statements.

Halliday’s functional grammar model provides a description of how the structure of English relates to the variables of the social context in which the language is functioning. In this way, it is uniquely productive as an educational resource for teaching how the grammatical form of language is structured to achieve purposes in a variety of social contexts.

3.2.5. Jakobson’s model. Jakobson’s Model of Communicative Functions.

Jakobson extended other linguists’ models to his theory of communicative functions. For instance, he adapted Bühler’s tripartite system of communicative functions, adding three more to his, and somehow his model reminds us of those of Moles’, except for one, namely context. Jakobson states that a common code is not sufficient for the communicative process, but rather a context is necessary from which the object of communication is drawn. This context resembles Bühler’s object correlate. Jakobson allocates a communicative function to each of the components which may be active simultaneously in utterances. They are as follows.

The emotive function focuses on the first person, and reflects the speaker’s attitude to the topic of his or her discourse. It resembles Bühler’s expressive function. The addresser’s own attitude towards the content of the message is emphazised by means of emphatic speech or interjections.

The conative function is directed towards the addressee, and it is centred on the second person. We may find in Literature where the most explicit instance is illustrated by two grammatical categories, the vocative and the imperative. This function is similar to Bühler’s appelative function.

The referential function refers to the context, and emphasizes that communication is always dealing with something contextual, what Bühler called representative. This function can be equated with the cognitive use of language, which highlights theinformational content of an utterance, and virtually eliminates the focus on the speaker or on the addressee.

The phatic function helps to establish contact between two speakers, and refers to the channel of communication.

The metalinguistic function deals with the verbal code itself, that is, on language speaking of itself, as an example of metalanguage. The aim is to clarify the manner in which the verbal code is used, for instance, when the code is misunderstood and needs correction or clarification through questions such as “Sorry, what did you say?”

The poetic function deals with the message as a signifier within a decorative or aesthetic function of language. This is achieved by means of rhetorical figures, pitch or loudness. Jakobson’s Constitutive Factors.

In this section the functional structure of Jakobson’s Constitutive Factors Model (1960) is briefly explained as the elements of the communication process have been already overviewed in previous sections. According to Jakobson (1960) a message is sent by an addresser to an addressee, and for this to occur, a common code must be used by the addresser and addressee, as well as a physical channel, or contact, and the same frame of reference, or context.

Each of the constituent elements of the communicative process has a corresponding function where the message has to be located it. The constitutive factors are as follows. When the message deals with context, its relationship is representational; with the speaker is expressive; with the addressee is conative; with the channel is phatic; with the code is metalingual; and finally, the relationship between a message and itself is poetic.


This section, in briefly reviewing the concept of language, mainly as a tool and as a process, will provide, first, a common background to the notions of language in use and the negotiation of meaning, respectively. Although these two notions may be examined individually, they share common links to particular disciplines such as semantics, pragmatics, and sociolinguistics. Thus, language as a tool or language in use operates upon conveying our intentions and our personal meaning within semantics whereas language as a process goes beyond linguistics into pragmatics and social psychology (Rivers 1981). The most relevant contributions in terms of concepts and approaches will be provided by the most prominent specialists in this field. Secondly, language in use and the negotiation of meaning will be examined, in turn, by offering a definition of the term itself, its most relevant features and key concepts, and present-day approaches related to the issue.

4.1. A theoretical background to language in use and the negotiation of meaning.

4.1.1. Three fundamentals on a theory of language.

According to Rivers (1981), historically speaking, language teaching has been based on three main views of language, thus, language as a product, language as a tool and language as a communication process. These three levels of language have links to acknowledged disciplines according to their underlying theories of language. Thus, the former level, language as a product, turns language into an object of study within the discipline of linguistics. Here language is analyzed in phonological, syntactic, morphological, and semantic terms regarding parts of speech and syntactic rules. Within the second level, language as a tool, our intentions to convey meaning are given prominence, and the ways we can use language are described in terms of semantics, expressing a wide range of personal meanings such as asking, denying, persuading or stating. The latter level, language as a process, deals with how to formulate messages to express specific meanings whether in oral or written form in order to effect our purposes and avoid misleading in particular situations.

As speech is a social event, it can be learned only through experience with language in use. We may understand a language system and be able to combine its linguistic elements to express specific meanings, but we may still not understand a word or feel unable to say what we really want to say. There is a need for internalizing the intrinsic aspects of a language, that is, a need for a negotiation of meaning, for instance, how to greet each other, make polite enquiries, ask conventional questions, congratulate or just keep interaction moving. Speakers need to know what levels of language they should use in different circumstances such as when to speak or remain silent, and also how to grasp covert meanings behind words and gestures. To Rivers (1981), our timing is an essential issue in order to provide a solution to this problem, and disciplines such as pragmatics, social psychology, and semantics are intended to shed light on these situations for speakers to be successful at all levels of communication.

At this point it is relevant to introduce the issue of next sections such as the relationship of language to semantics, pragmatics and sociolinguistics in order to give a framework to language in use and the negotiation of meaning.

4.1.2. The influential role of semantics and pragmatics.

Both pragmatic and semantic fields play an important role within the notions of language use and negotiation of meaning. The former, semantics, refers to the study of the meaning of words and the use a speaker may make of it, including distinctions about the meaning and use of words such as their connotations, denotations, implications, and ambiguities. The latter, pragmatics , deals with the relation between signs and the listener’s interpretation of them and examines how listeners perceives the speaker’s intentions. Recently, pragmatics deals with those aspects that cannot be included within a conventional linguistic analysis.

It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that semantic and pragmatic approaches rose in importance when several works on first-language acquisition proved to be more readily explicable in semantic terms regarding early utterances of young children. Prominent researchers like Roger Brown and Schlesinger found that the semantic and pragmatic way of negotiating and interpreting meaning, that is, the rules of language in use, was seen to be dependent to a large degree on the situations in which speech acts occurred.

Language teachers found this functional approach of more value for application than some of the more abstract linguistic models of preceding decades. There was a growing emphasis on designing classroom activities, so that the language use would reflect normal purposes of language in interactional contexts. Learners of a language had to know how to express their intentions appropriately in many contexts as there is no meaning without context .

Teachers began to recognize the artificiality of many language exercises and adapt them so that they reflected more authentic uses of language (Rivers 1981). For instance, practicing the interrogative would be replaced by students asking each other or the teacher questions of some relevance to their daily life and activities, or going out of class to ask a native speaker questions about his or her life and work. Materials writers began to pay more attention to the communicative act and the levels of language within which the students needed to operate in order to respond appropriately with different interlocutors in different circumstances.

4.1.3. The influential role of sociolinguistics.

The origins of this branch of linguistics began during the 1960s and 1970s, when several studies on sociology focused their interest on the study of the context in which language is used, thus, biological, psychological, personal, functional, and social, and also how these contexts affect and are affected by language. The field of sociolinguistics concerns itself particularly with the way language is used for communication within the social group in terms of language use, speech varieties within a community, the language behavior of ethnic groups, bilingualism and multilingualism.

Hence, many important studies have been developed within this discipline in order to help students develop a feeling for appropriate language use in different situations. Thus, during the 1970s, an influential linguist on communicative language interaction, the American anthropologist Hymes (1972), claimed that the most novel and relevant aspect that sociolinguistic brought to light about language within a community, was to establish what a speaker needs to know to communicate effectively in culturally significant settings . He coined, then, the concept of communicative competence which soon began to affect the language-teaching community, as it dealt with the underlying student’s knowledge of the rules of grammar and how to use them in socially appropriate situations. Materials writers and classroom teachers realized that students not only needed to know how to express ideas in correct grammatical patterns, but also to know the culturally acceptable ways of interacting orally with others.

Another relevant concept to a sociolinguistic approach on language use and the negotiation of meaning is the concept of register. From Latin ‘registrum’, that is, a list or catalogue, it defines a variety of language according to social use, thus, scientific, journalistic, religious and formal style. This term was given relevance by the British linguist Michael Halliday (1975) and defines an acceptable type of language in a community for certain situations and for special purposes. Since registers differ, we may find different types of discourse regarding oral and written format; formal and informal style or the social purpose as for instance, scientific papers.

Since the study of the culture in which the second language is embedded is an important aspect of foreign- language teaching, the students need opportunities to interact with native speakers in natural settings through different activities such as exchange and study abroad programs. This interaction will help students to use appropriate questions and comments with the appropriate stress and intonation to avoid causing offense and giving wrong impressions by mixing elements from several registers in speech and writing.

4.1.4. Approaches to language use and the negotiation of meaning.

Among the most prominent scholars in this field, we may mention Hymes, Noam Chomsky, Halliday, and Canale and Swain, who, on challenging previous behaviorist assumptions about language structure and language learning, shed light on a theory of language use by taking the position that language is creative, rule governed and with a communicative value.

It was in the 1970s when the notion of communicative competence comes into force. The American anthropologist Dell Hymes (1972) was linked to this sociolinguistic term that refers to the speaker’s underlying knowledge of the rules of grammar and their use in socially appropriate circumstances. For Hymes, the goal of language teaching is to develop a communicative competence which allows a learner to be communicatively competent in a speech community. This term differs from Chomsky’s dichotomy between competence and performance, where competence is the knowledge of grammar rules and performance, how those rules are used. Hymes’s concept of communicative competence brings about the nuance of situational contexts where learners have to apply their knowlegde and ability in a foreign language to choose what levels of language they should use in different circumstances.

Halliday (1970), as we have seen in previous sections, elaborated a functional theory on the use of language, giving prominence to a social mode of expression in which the value of language lies in the use that the speakers make of it and their selection from the language system, thus, from three main macrofunctions such as ideational, interpersonal, or textual, he establishes other seven basic functions to be described later in the section on “Negotiation of meaning”. Henc e, meaning is, for Halliday, a product of the relationship between the system and its environment. Similarly, Canale and Swain (1980) went further within the purposes of real communication and negotiation of meaning by identifying four dimensions of communicative competence, thus, grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse and strategic competence.

4.2. Language in use.

In this section, a definition of language in use will be provided, and then, we will describe the two levels at which language works, thus , combining elements and adapting them to a certain situational context. Here we will highlight the importance of a situational context for successful communication to take place since the notion of language in use is linked to the influence of sociolinguistics.

4.2.1. On defining “language in use”.

According to Rivers (1981), historically speaking, language teaching has been based on three main views of language, thus, language as a tool, language as a product and language as a communication process. The former, and the one we are dealing with in this section is language as a tool, which deals with the ways we can use language to convey our intentions and personal meaning. This level highlights the ways language is used to operate upon the environment by means of things, people our ourselves, in order to express nuances and subtleties of meaning; the second, language as a product, turns language into an object of study; and the latter one, language as a process, is linked to our next section named “Negotiation of Meaning” to be dealt with afterwards. This function deals with how to formulate messages to express speacific meanings.

On defining the term use, it is worh mentioning that this concept traces back to Aristotle, and emphasizes the ways we can use a language to operate upon the environment, that is, upon things, upon people, and upon ourselves in the self -directive function of thought. The language we learn is intended to be internalized as an instrument as it will provide us with the appropriate means to express nuances and subtleties of meaning. The concept use has been defined by Brune, among others, as a powerful determinant of rule structure. For Halliday (1985), the value of a theory lies in the use that can be made of it. Hence, his the ory on language use results from the link between the language system and a social mode of expression, that is, different circumstances.

When dealing with language as a tool, we refer to the different ways in which we can use language according to, first, our intentions and personal meaning, and secondly, the circumstances in which the act of communication takes place. Secondly, regarding language as a process, we may understand the way we use our language to effect our purposes, whether in oral or writte n form, in different circumstances.

4.2.2. Two levels at language in use.

In the early part of the twentieth century, emphasis was given to the intellectual aspect of language learning and written skills whereas in the mid-1960s, there was a revolutio n of language teaching methods which brought about an early cultivation of the speaking skill, as well as the production on meaningful sentences by analogy and variation. This approach, in the words of Ellis (1985), was considered to be consistent with native-language use, where speakers use language without conscious effort and without rules to their language production. Since artificial samples of the foreign language stopped students from communicating effectively, the aim was for students to be able to create new utterances at will to convey their personal message and to know how to use those utterances in different circumstances.

In order to produce fluent language users at an authentic speech level, a wide range of approaches claimed for a competent use of the foreign language, that is, avoiding the unsystematically and uncomprehensible use of language. Rivers (1981) states that we may identify two levels of language use. The first level refers to the manipulation of language elements , combining and varying them in order ot express our meaning comprehensibly according to the demands of the language system. Here we refer to phonology, orthography, syntax, lexicon, and semantics. The second level deals with the expression of personal meaning by selecting appropriate means with infinite possiblities of expression. The selection depends on the type and degree of intensity of the message to be conveyed, the situational context in which the utterance takes place, and the relationship between speaker and listener.

From the 1980s on, there was an increasing emphasis on language functions. The term “use” was to be defined within the framework of a foreign- language situation for students to use their knowledge and ability in genuine communication. In an act of communication, we are influenced by environmental factors as well as by our own intentions, and therefore, the speakers will select, according to the circumstances, a set of linguistic means in order to express their own purposes. They needed to know which levels of the language they should use in different circumstances and how to negotiate meaning by means of asking acceptable questions. This selection reflects the complexity of the use of human language, as there are infinite aspects of meaning both within

language and in the relation between language and world.


This section is intended to define the notion of “negotiation of meaning” within a linguistic approach on second language acquisition. Some key concepts such as register and discourse will be defined in order to give a relevant framework to the notion of negotiating meaning. As we shall see later, the linguistic environment that speakers and learners are exposed to plays an important role in this interactive process.

4.3.1. On defining “negotiation of meaning”. Communication strategies.

Problems of communication affect us all in many aspects of day-to-day living, and can cause serious trouble. It is incredibly easy to be unintentionally misunderstood, or to speak ambiguously, or vaguely. In the words of Crystal (1985), to initiate communication is one thing whereas to make it successful is another. An excellent example of difficult communication is in the doctor -patient relationship, where most patients find it very difficult to get the right words to describe their symptoms whereas for doctors, the problem is to formulate a diagnosis in words which the patient will understand. They may use a term which has negative associations for the patient and could cause unfortunate side-effects. Within this interaction, there is a need and a wish for a mutual understanding.

When communicating, speakers often experience considerable difficulty when their resources in their foreign or native language are limited. This effort to overcome communicative difficulties in order to secure a mutual understanding is known as the ‘negotiation of meaning’. This is a major feature of conversations involving second language acquisition, as strategies and tactics are involved in this process on the part of the native speaker and the learner. Communication strategies will be the issue of our next section.

4.3.2. Strategies and tactics in the negotiation of meaning.

Communication strategies were discussed in psycholinguistic terms as they were treated as the mental phenomena which underlay actual language behaviour. In the words of Tarone (1981), they are characterized by the ‘negotiation of an agreement on meaning’ between interlocutors. Since Selinker (1972) coined the term ‘communication strategy’, there has been a steady increase of interest in the learner’s communication strategies since they are said to be responsible for the interaction in the communication process. Two main features characterize strategies, first, to be potentially conscious and secondly, to be problem-oriented, that is, that they are employed to overcome a communication problem.

Strategies and tactics can help to expand resources as their main contribution is to keep the channel open, facilitating the acquisition of new lexis and grammatical rules. Among the main conversational devices the speaker use to avoid problems, within strategies we may mention checking meaning, predicting, and selecting a topic. Within tactics used to solve the problem, we mainly mention asking for clarification and repetition, and topic switching. To sum up, we may say that communication strategies are psycholinguistic plans which are part of the speaker’s communicative competence, combining strategies and tactics in order to negotiate meaning to achieve successfully their communicative purposes (Ellis 1985).

4.3.3. Key concepts in the negotiation of meaning: register and discourse.

In an act of communication, we do not always use the appropriate level of language within a certain situation, and we often have expectations towards the response of the person to whom we are addressing the message because some of our expectations are culturally based. If we do not choose our words carefully, and our anticipation of the reaction of the receiver is ill founded, the message decoded may be quite different from the message we intended to convey (Rivers 1981). Two receivers may decode two different messages from the same signal. Then, misinterpretation is likely to occur, and even more when using a non-native language.

The cultural associations of the linguistic items, and of the accompanying prosodic, paralinguistic, and kinesic elements such as intonation, stress, tone of voice, facial movements, and gestures, may be quite different for listener and speaker. In fact, in the words of Crystal (1985), there are areas where the implications are of world importance, such as political and philosophical terms which describe ideals and norms of behaviour with different meaning in different countries. The meanin g of terms like ‘freedom’, ‘communist’, and ‘democratic’ have good or bad or neutral overtones depending very much on which part of the world you were brought up in, and similarly with issues such as religion, and business among others.

It is within this cultural embedding that key concepts such as register and discourse come into force. Both of them claim for differences in grammar and lexis appropriate for a variety of situations. The term register was first given broad currency by the British linguist Michael Halliday (1975) and defined as a certain type of language which is acceptable in a community, for certain situations and for special purposes. Registers were, then, subclassified into three domains to be included in a discourse definition: field of discourse, referring to the subject matter of the variety; manner of discourse , referring to the social relations between the participants, as shown by variations in formality; and mode of discourse , referring to the choice between speech and writing, and the choice of format;

Therefore, the term discourse is to be defined as a subclassification of register which, in linguistics, refers to a unit or piece of connected speech or writing that is longer than a conventional sentence. In general, it is a formal term for institutionalized forms of talk, conversation, dialogue, lecture, sermon, and communicative events in general. Halliday emphasizes in his systemic linguistics the social functions of language and the thematic and informational structure of speech and writing. He also relates grammar at the clause and sentence level to situational constraints, referred to in discourse as fields when dealing with the purpose of communication (technical, scientific or advertising); manner, regarding the relationship between the participants (formal or informal); and mode , referring to channels of communication (literary or non literary texts).


This section looks at present-day approaches on the communication process from an educational approach, and therefore, within the framework of a classroom setting. This type of formal instruction in language teaching addresses the role played by our current educational system, L.O.G.S.E., in providing the foundations for attempts at real communication from an eclectic approach.

Since we are dealing with a communicative approach, it is relevant to mention the objectives that our current educational system searches for. First, a focus on fluency to promote an interactive groupwork in the classroom. Secondly, as communicative approaches claim for, to provide students with genuine interactions in order to increase their learning in the foreign language. The aim is for students to acquire a communicative competence, where their knowledge and ability in the foreign language will help them get the meaning of a sentence, even if the different functions of language make it difficult. Finally, students are provided with strategies and techniques to overcome their communicative problems in an attempt to make communication as real as possible in a formal setting.

This authentic communicative interaction is approached within our current educational system through specific projects and programmes proposed by the European Community, especially designed to provide students a genuine communicative interaction. At present, projects such as “Comenius” and “Socrates” are intended to promote international exchanges within the European Community, and projects such as “Plumier” are designed to promote the use of new technologies to communicate with other students worlwide. These three projects are designed for students to practice and increase their learning in the foreign language. “Plumier” Quite recently, the Spanish Educational System, and in particular, Murcia educational institution, establishes in its curriculum several literary contests to be developed in a foreign language, such as The 20 th Anniversary of Murcia as a Province , and tour-guided visits in a foreign language to museums, such as Salzillo’s museum and Cieza’s museum. Furthermore, bilingualism schooling and programmes have become a reality nowadays in our regional secondary schools providing students with a natural setting within a classroom context.


As a summary of the previous discussion on a detailed account of the communication process, we may highlight the importance of functionalist theories on the different communication models presented in this study, following the premise that a language is learnt in order to fulfil more efficiently the functions of communication, and to develop structures out of these functions from the environment. This is the main issue within the section of language in use, which considers the role of semantics, pragmatics, and especially sociolinguistics as one of the basis of a functionalist theory of language development, as they focus more on the intent or purpose behind an utterance than on its grammar or syntax.

The following section is devoted to the notion of negotiation of meaning in which concepts such as register and discourse are under revision. Strategies and tactics for learners to put in practice their knowledge and ability in a foreign language are also under discussion from a communicative approach in a formal setting. This section gives us an overview on how people who are not native speakers of a language, may not communicate successfully with other people when their cultural competence is not appropriate in the interaction within a specific setting.

On the communication process and the elements involved in it, we may say it is worth repeating that in a communicative interaction, grammar and vocabulary resources are not enough to convey a personal message. We are intended to select the linguistic elements to express it so as to arouse in the receiver the meaning we are trying to convey, bearing in mind that we are influenced by the social and cultural context as well as by our own intentions. It is, therefore, relevant to hightlight the importance of the cultural embedding we are dealing with, as it will help us avoid misinterpretations with native speakers of the foreign language. Other elements can help us to transmit a message successfully, such as prosodic, kinesic and paralinguistic elements, in order to convey our attitude to the basic message. Thus, being humorous, ironical, disapproving or cautious. Eventually, as the emitters of a message, we choose the form and choice of items in our message in order to be successful in the communication process.


On the communication process

Crystal, D. 1985. Linguistics. Harmondsworth, England. Penguin Books.

Halliday, M. A. K. 1973. Explorations in the Functions of Language. London: Edward Arnold.

Rivers, W. 1981. Teaching Foreign -Language Skills. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

On functions of language

Saussure, F. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris,

1983). New York: Philosophical Library.

Halliday, M. A. K. 1973. Explorations in the Functions of Language . London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1985. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

Introduction to language use and the negotiation of meaning

Rivers, W. 1981. Teaching Foreign -Language Skills. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

On semantics, pragmatics and sociolinguistic influence on language

Brown, R. 1973. A First Language: The Early Stages. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Halliday, M. 1975. Learning How to Mean. London: Edward Arnold.

Hymes, D. 1974. Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia:

University of Pennsylvania Press.

On language use and strategies

Ellis, R. 1985. Understanding Second Language Acquisition . Oxford University Press.

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

For current statistics and references

Revistas de laAsociación Española de Lingüística Aplicada (AESLA):

De la Cruz, Isabel; Santamaría, Carmen; Tejedor, Cristina y Valero, Carmen. 2001. La Lingüística

Aplica da a finales del Siglo XX. Ensayos y propuestas. Universidad de Alcalá.

Celaya, Mª Luz; Fernández-Villanueva, Marta; Naves, Teresa; Strunk, Oliver y Tragant, Elsa. 2001.

Trabajos en Lingüística Aplicada . Universidad de Barcelona.

Moreno, Ana I. & Colwell, Vera. 2001. Perspectivas Recientes sobre el Discurso. Universidad de León.

Revista de CERCLE, Centro Europeo de Recursos Culturales Lingüísticos y Educativos.

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