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

Communication can be defined as the Exchange of meanings between individuals through a common system of symbols.

The English author I.A. Richards offered one of the first definitions of communication as a discrete aspect of human enterprise:

“Communication takes place when one mind so acts upon its environment that another mind is influenced, and in that other mind an experience occurs which is caused in part by that experience, and similar to this”.

One of the most productive schematic models of a communication system was that of the linguist Roman Jakobson:







In the simplest sense, the word function can be thought as a synonym for the word use. Though the number of messages in a language are numberless, the purposes in which we use them can be classified.

In 1923 the Anthropologist Malinosky suggested the distinction between A PRAGMATIC and a MAGICAL use of language.

In 1934, the Austrian psychologist Karl Bühler suggested 3 cathegories, based on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons proposed by Plato: EXPRESSIVE, CONATIVE, REPRESENTATIONAL.

In 1960 the member of the Prague School Roman Jakobson presented the following scheme:





In 1970, the educator James Britton, linked a 1st stage of the development of children in school to a EXPRESSIVE function of language, and a 2nd stage to a TRANSACTIONAL and a POETIC functions.

Going a step beyond, function is understood as a fundamental property of language itself, something that is basic to the evolution of the semantic system. The organization of a language can be explained by terms of a functional theory.

According to Halliday, when you come into a situation which is already going on, you are able relatively quickly to take part in the interaction. This is because you note what is going on (a conversation, an argument, a class…), you recognize the role and relationships of participants (father-son, teacher-student, friends…), and how language is organized (imperatives, passive, cohesion…). Halliday calls these 3 kinds of knowledge FIELD, TENOR, and MODE.



In 1965 Noah Chomsky introduced the terms COMPETENCE and PERFORMANCE. COMPETENCE is the speaker intuitive knowledge of the rules of his/her language. PERFORMANCE is what he/she is able to produce by applying these rules.

For Chomsky, linguistic theory is concerned with the “perfect knowledge” of language, a knowledge by which an ideal speaker can produce any and all the well-formed sentences of his/her language. It would not be affected by “irrelevant conditions” such as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, etc. The criterion to judge competence is grammaticality, to judge performance, acceptability.

Dell Hymes, Jakobovits, and many other linguists, say sociocultural conventions are relevant conditions for communication to be successful, so they should be included in the term competence:

“There are rules of use without which the rules of grammar are useless”.

According to this view, there are 4 criteria to judge competence:

If something is formally possible (grammar).

If something can be done in the field of reality.

If something is appropriate in relation to its context.

If something is done, and what this doing involves.

These criteria try to integrate linguistics with theory of communication and culture.

Halliday, proposes the notion of Meaning Potential, to relate sociocultural potential with lexico-grammatical potential:

What the speaker can do (social)

What the speaker can mean (mental)

What the speaker can say (linguistic)


Widdowson distinguishes two ways of looking at language beyond the limit of the sentence.

Text discourse sees language as a text, that is, a group of predicates joined by cohesive devices.

Discourse analysis sees language as the use of predicates to perform acts of communication, which cohere into larger communicative units, which can be seen as social actions.

If we want to teach language in use, we must shift the focus from the construction of sentences to the combinations of these into texts, and to their integration into acts of communication.


When learners of a second language interact with native speakers or other learners, they often experience considerable difficulty in communicating. This leads to interactional efforts by both parts to get mutual understanding. This work is called negotiation of meaning.

Negotiation of meaning has implications in the acquisition of a new language:

Use of strategies to avoid trouble: checking comprehension, selecting salient topics…

Use of tactics to repair trouble: requests for clarification, slow pace, repetition, stressing key words, using gestures…

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