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

I have based this essay on the following source:

– Richards J.C & Rodgers T.S. Approaches and Methods in Language


– Nunan, D. The Learner-Centred Curriculum.

In this theme I will deal with the following issues:

Firstly, the relation between language and communication.

Secondly the main functions of language according to Jacobson, Hymes and Halliday.

Thirdly, what language in use is according to Chomsky, Rivers and Cook.

To end up with the negotiation of meaning and certain strategies.



The concept of language has been approach by many linguists.

· DEFINITION: According to Halliday: language is an instrument of interaction with a clear communicative purpose.

· And it has the following CHARACTERISTICS:

1. The number of combinations in any one language is infinite.

2. New combinations can be generated and understood by the people who speak the same language.

3. Human language can be expressed in indifferent medium writing and print, the graphic medium; in sign language, a visual medium, and Braille, a tactile medium.

4. Use of arbitrary symbols: there is no link in most words between the form used and the meaning expressed.

5. Displacement: imaginative use of language.

6. Language is always changing.


· DEFINITION: Communication is the transmission of information between a source and a receiver using a signalling system.

According to Halliday: exchange & negotiation of information between at least two individuals through the use of verbal & non-verbal symbols, oral & written, and production & comprehension processes.

· ELEMENTS of communication:

1. ADDRESSER: the person who originates the message.

2. ADDRESSEE: the person to whom the message is addressed.

3. CHANNEL: the medium through which the message travels.

4. MESSAGE FORM: particular grammatical & lexical choices of the message.

5. TOPIC: info carried in the message.

6. CODE: the language or dialect.

7. SETTING: the social or physical context.


· The term was coined by the Russian linguist JAKOBSON (1960) as a synonym of use and distinguished between everyday language and poetry.

· Later on, other linguists established macro functions of language, each function focusing attention on one element of communication. For example according to HYMES:


1. addresser emotive

2. addressee directive

3. channel phatic

4. message form poetic

5. topic referential

6. code metalinguistic

7. setting contextual

Let’s define here and give examples of Hymes’ functions:

1. emotive: represents feelings and attitudes; e.g. ‘Fantastic!’

2. directive: the addresser wants the addressee to carry out and action.

3. phatic: to open, close and check the channel; e.g. ‘Can you hear me?’

4. poetic: concentrates on form.

5. referential: deals with a topic.

6. metalinguistic: use the code; e. g. ‘How do you say X?’.

7. contextual: the setting plays a role in the communicative process; e.g. ‘Let’s play!’.

More recently, another definition of language functions was proposed by Michael HALLIDAY. Michael Halliday (1973) has found that the correspondence between functions and utterance is straightforward, one-to -one. This is especially obvious in the language of children, the younger the child, the more clear-cut are the functions. Halliday used a framework of seven initial functions:


1. addresser personal

2. addressee regulatory

3. channel interactional

4. message form imaginative

5. topic representational

6. code heuristic

7. setting instrumental

A single sentence or conversation might incorporate many different functions simultaneously.


In this section, I am going to deal with language in use and some of the different theories describing what language in use is, what language is not and the diverse aspects that have contributed to its development.

3.1 In the 1950’s CHOMSKY drew a main distinction between a person’s knowledge and the actual use of that language in real situations. The first was called competence and the second performance.

Ferdinand de Saussure proposed a similar dichotomy some time before, and defined language as the faculty of speech present in all human beings. This faculty is composed of two aspects: ‘langue’ (the language system) and ‘parole’ (the act of speaking).

In the 1960’s Chomsky connected competence to on idealized speaker-hearer who does not display performance variables such as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, slips of the tongue, false starts, etc. We all produce speech errors and they show the difference between our linguistic knowledge and the way we use that knowledge in performance.

3.2 According to RIVERS (1981) language teaching has been based on 3 main views of language:

· a communication process

· a product

· a tool

The first one, language as a communication process, is linked to the negotiation of meaning and I will deal with it afterwards.

The second one, language as a product, turns language into an object of study, and the third one, language as a tool, deals with the ways we can use language to convey our intentions and personal meanings. This will be language in use and Rivers states that there are 2 levels of language in use:

1. it refers to the manipulation of language elements, combining and varying them in order to express our meaning comprehensibly.

2. it deals with the expression of personal meaning by selecting appropriate means with infinite possibilities of expression.

3.3 According to COOK (1989), there are two types of language:

1. an abstract language in order to teach a language or literacy or to study how the rules of language work.

It deals with isolated sentences.

It is grammatically well-formed.

It is presented without context.

It may be invented or idealized.

2. the language used to communicate something and it is felt to be coherent. This is called DISCOURSE and refers to language in use.

It achieves meaning.

It is presented in context.

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Discourse may be composed of one or more well-formed grammatical sentences but it may have grammatical mistakes. What matters is that it communicates and is recognized by its receivers as coherent.


As we have mentioned before, when we consider language as a communication process, negotiation of meaning plays an important role. It occurs during communicative exchanges and involves the interpretation of the communicative intention of the interlocutor within the context of a given message.

The realization of meaning in actual language use involves both:

· Schematic knowledge: common knowledge of shared experience.

· Systematic knowledge: linguistic and code knowledge.

Negotiation of meaning is a communicative strategy that speakers use in order to interpret the meaning of an utterance as well as secure mutual understanding. In this sense the concept of negotiating meaning is linked to strategic competence, which is a subcomponent of communicative competence. Teaching strategies to negotiate meaning are important in the context of second language and foreign language learning, because when true negotiation of meaning is going on, students will be fully engaged in using English to understand the meaning intended.

Now, I am going to consider certain strategies that help out both native and non-native speakers when they find themselves in difficulties:

a. Native & non-native speakers:

1. Topic clarification: Pardon?

2. Rephrasing: Let me put that another way.

3. Ongoing checks: Are you with me?

4. Topic change: That reminds me …

b. Non-native speakers:

1. Paraphrase

1. approximation (generalization): animal for horse.

2. Word coinage: air ball for balloon.

3. Circumlocution (description).

2. Transfer (reliance on L1)

1. Literal translation: Make the door shut (shut the door).

2. Language switch: My granddad was a pages.

3. Appeal for assistance: What is this?

4. Mime: clapping one’s hands to illustrate applause.

3. Avoidance:

1. Topic: learners avoid topics for which the vocabulary of other meaning structure is unknown.

2. Message abandonment: learner stops mid-utterance due to the lack of meaning-structures.

In terms of foreign language learning, we as teachers should provide our students with all the tools which help them to communicate properly, and what is more, to improve their communicative competence knowing all the features of discourse and all the elements involved in it.