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Topic 4 – Communicative competence. Analysis of its components

This topic deals with the so-called Communicative Competence. However, the concept of Communicative Competence (from now on, I will call it CC) has not always existed. Thus, my answer will begin with a definition of what is now understood as CC, followed by a brief historical account of the different steps taken to formulate the concept of CC. Finally, I will apply this concept of CC to the teaching of English as a foreign language, by analysing the components that the Spanish Educational Authorities find relevant.

I am going to start by presenting a very general definition of communicative competence. We understand Communicative Competence as the knowledge which enables someone to use a language effectively, and their ability to actually use this knowledge for communication. The term is most usually attributed to Dell Hymes’s paper “On Communicative Competence”. However, since Hymes, the term CC has been widely used in sociolinguistics and language teaching, often in rather vague and conflicting ways. Current confusion over the term is attributable partly to the many developments and interpretations of the original notion, partly to misunderstanding and simplifications of it, and partly to its fashionable status.

Because of the many interpretations of the notion of CC I am going to explore some of the different approaches to the notion of communicative competence. Chomsky 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.

Hymes criticized the narrowness of Chomsky’s theories on language use, and proposed that there were other kinds of knowledge, rules of use, that enabled actual speakers to use the language effectively, and without which the rules of grammar would be completely useless. He also claimed that Chomsky did not deal with the competence of individual users, but only of an idealized speaker-hearer. He stresses the need for a theory that can deal with a heterogeneous speech community, differential competence (that is, variation between individuals), the constitutive role of sociocultural features, socioeconomic differences, multilingual mastery, and so on. 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. For instance, someone could ask: “Is it raining?” and another person could answer: “The new Pope’s face is scary”. As can be seen, both are linguistically correct sentences, but none of them has achieved effective communication, since the answer does not respond to the question’s needs. Any sentence must be linguistically correct; must be feasible regarding aspects such as memory limitations, effects of properties such as nesting, embedding, etc; must be appropriate in a given context; and must actually occur in the language.

CC rapidly became a fashionable notion, especially in language teaching, and there were other theories that complemented and implemented Hymes’ one. In the consequent proliferation of theoretical writings and language teaching materials, there is often considerable vagueness, confusion and simplification, reflecting more the commercial advantages of invoking the term than any serious attempt to develop a rigorous model.

An outstandingly influential study that should be taken into consideration when considering the concept of CC, is the one carried out by Canale and Swain (1980). They presented a three-part CC consisting of:

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

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

· Sociolinguistic competence, which is further broken down into socio-cultural competence -knowledge of the relationship of language use to its non-linguistic context- and discourse competence -knowledge of rules for the combination of utterances and communicative functions, which may be conceived as knowledge of factors governing the creation of cohesion and coherence.

This study was further developed by Canale (1983) by altering the original scheme and separating discourse competence from sociolinguistic competence, to make it an autonomous fourth sub-competence. Moreover, according to Canal, the main goal to attain with strategic competence is not only to compensate for breakdowns in communication, but also to enhance the effectiveness of communication.

The Spanish educational authorities further modified this model in the 90s by also separating socio-cultural competence and making it autonomous. According to the Real Decreto 1006/1991, Communicative Competence is finally made up of 5 sub-competences:

· GRAMMAR COMPETENCE, which states that an able speaker has a subconscious knowledge of the grammar rules of his own language which allows him to make accurate sentences in that language. In a foreign language, a pupil shows grammatical competence when he produces adequately accurate language by applying the rules he has learned to form structures, using the vocabulary he knows and pronouncing well.

· DISCOURSE COMPETENCE, which states that an able speaker knows what language is appropriate in a given situation and can produce longer stretches of language, appropriately linked to form a meaningful, unified whole.

· SOCIOLINGUISTIC COMPETENCE, which states that an able speaker can adapt the language he used to a specific context. That is to say, depending on who he is talking to, what they are talking about and so on, s/he may use formal, informal, technical, non-technical language and so on.

· STRATEGIC COMPETENCE, which states that an able speaker can use verbal and non-verbal communication strategies to improve the effectiveness of communication, that is to say, he can paraphrase, use synonyms, ask for clarification…

· SOCIOCULTURAL COMPETENCE, which states that an able speaker is familiar with the social and cultural context in which native speakers use their language.

As can be seen, any use of language is not static. One does not decide on an appropriate piece of language, says it, and then walks away (except in especially dramatic situations). In conversation with another person one constantly has to interpret what is being said as the conversation continues. So, by equating this mobile feature of language, it can be explained the aforementioned evolution in the study of CC, since it varies, as language through a conversation does.

The most recent view is that offered by the Council of Europe. According to the Council of Europe, communicative competence can be broken down into three sub-competences: linguistic competence, sociolinguistic competence and pragmatic or discourse competence. Strategic competence can also be added.

Thus, now I have dealt with the two first parts of my essay dealing with what is understood as CC, and the evolution in the study of CC up until now, I will move onto the final section which deals with the application of CC to the teaching of English as a foreign language. Although Hymes´s original paper was not concerned with language teaching, but with providing a theoretical framework which could describe the knowledge and capabilities of the successful language user, his model has exerted a considerable influence on all aspects of language teaching and assessment, including overall approach.

I should begin this final section of my essay by saying that the final objective of the teaching of a foreign language is achieving effective communication in that language. This objective is nothing new: since the beginning of the 20th century it has been recognised that methods based exclusively on the teaching of grammar and translation have not met the needs of most learners. Efforts have been made to identify today’s needs and to find the best, quickest and most effective way of teaching a foreign language. Let’s see the most relevant features of communicative approaches to language teaching:

· Learner-centred teaching: the learners take on more active roles in the classroom and the teacher plays the part of “facilitator” or “resource person”. Pair or group work, role play and games are sorts of activities which help reduce the dominant role of the teacher in the class. Teachers have to cater for the specific needs of the group as a whole, but at the same time, making sure that individual aspirations are given due attention. On the other hand, they must pay attention to meaning and form simultaneously.

· More emphasis is being put in the correlation of linguistic forms to situational settings and the cultural environment in general. Notional or functional syllabuses are often used. They provide a major alternative to the emphasis of formal language teaching. Here the content of a course is organised in terms of the meaning that learners require in order to communicate in particular functional contexts. Major communicative notions include the linguistic expression of time, duration, frequency, sequence, quantity, location and motion. Major communicative functions include evaluations, persuasion, emotional expression and the establishing of social relations.

· More emphasis is put on the use of language than on the analysis of its structure; on the internalization of rules which generate sentences than on the mechanical memorization of endless and often meaningless lists of phrases and structures.

· The achievement of spontaneous communication and fluency becomes the main objective, even at the expense of grammatical correctness and accuracy. Errors and mistakes are considered as a normal part of the learning process.

· The traditional presentation of language, that is, catalogues of words, phrases and sentences, is rejected in favour of the introduction of larger chunks of language. In other words, both teachers and learners are encouraged to use genuine language in meaningful situations, which implies operating with units of meaning above the phrase or sentence level.

· Emphasis is often given to oral comprehension and production in contrast to the often exclusive attention to written skills found in more traditional methods.

· The need for increased attention to the teaching of lexis to avoid the frequent phenomenon of a structurally competent but communicatively incompetent student. E.g. Have you fire = Are you a match’s owner?

The ability to manipulate the structures of a language correctly is only a part of what it is involved in learning a language. There is “something else”, the ability to be appropriate, to know the right thing to say at the right time. In Hyme’s words, ”there are rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless”.

· Methodology: Classroom practice should correspond as closely as possible to real life use of language. It is important to make sure that there are communication gaps in situations in which the learners are asked to perform, that is to say, the disparity in knowledge and experience that exists between people involved in communication with each other. Much of the interaction between the teacher and the learner in the classroom is extremely artificial because there is no “communication gap” between the participants.

· Authentic material: There is nothing wrong in itself with creating special texts for specific purposes. Scripted material is useful for presenting specific language items economically and effectively. However, authentic material gives students a taste of “real” language” in use, and provides them with valid linguistic data for their unconscious acquisition processes to work on.

Taking into account what I have previously said about CC and its sub-competences, I can state that communicating effectively therefore consist of being able to produce lots of language, lots of correct language, but also to use it appropriately, depending on who the speaker is speaking to, where he is, why he is speaking, how he is communicating, the channel he is using and what he is speaking about. As can be seen, the term CC adapts perfectly well to this act of communicating effectively as main objective of teaching a foreign language. In communicative language teaching, the emphasis is on fluency and comprehensibility as opposed to accuracy. Experiencing fluency builds up a sense of comfort, confidence and control in those learners who lack other competences.

The Spanish educational authorities incorporated the term CC into their objectives for the teaching of English as a foreign language, that of developing communicative competence in our pupils, and see this competence as comprising five sub-competences. By breaking down CC into these five sub-competences and trying to promote them in our pupils we, as teachers, will be helping them in the language learning process and making them more effective at communicating in English.

The aforementioned sub-competences could be developed in different ways. For instance, Grammar Competence can be developed through exercises on grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Discourse Competence, through helping pupils’ comprehension and production of a wide variety of longer oral and written texts such as letters, dialogues and compositions; socio-linguistic competence, through activities practising functional language that will help then to learn how language is used in society; strategic competence can be promoted by teaching them how to cope with “gaps” in knowledge, by asking for information from others, by inferring meaning and by seeking information in dictionaries and textbooks. Finally, socio-cultural competence can be raised by providing pupils with information about aspects of life in English-speaking countries and encouraging them to compare these with their own lives.

All in all, I can conclude this last section of my presentation by saying that, by building confidence, increasing knowledge and raising awareness of these aspects in our pupils, we will help to develop their communicative competence.