Topic 1B – Language as communication: oral language and written language. Factors that define a communicative situation: transmitter, receiver, functions and context.

Topic 1B – Language as communication: oral language and written language. Factors that define a communicative situation: transmitter, receiver, functions and context.



1.1. Language definitions.

1.2. Language functions.

1.3. Communicative competence.


2.1. Spoken language.

2.2. Written language.

2.3. Historical Attitudes.

2.4. Differences between writing and speech.


3.1. Communication definition.

3.2. Main Models.

3.3. Key factors.



Traditional foreign language teaching concentrated on getting students consciously to learn items of language in insolation. These bits of information would be mainly used to read texts and only occasionally for oral communication. The focus was not on communication but on a piece of language. Following Krashen’s distinction between acquisition and learning we can say that people got to know about the language (learning) but could not use it in a real context (acquisition).

The British applied linguist Allwright tried to bridge this dichotomy when he theorised that if de language teacher’s management activities were directed exclusively at involving the learners in solving communication problems in the target language, then language learning wil take care of itlself. We may or may not agree with this extreme rendering of the Communicative approach, but we all agree nowadays on the importance of letting ous pupils use English for real communication during at least, the production stage.

In this unit we are going to study language and its functions to see that communication is one of thes functions. We wil then posit that learning a language is not only a grammatical and lexical process but also a social process. We also analyze the differences between writing and speech; and finally we will discuss the most important communication theory models, defining their key factors.


1.1. Language Definitions.

The word language has prompted innumerable definitions. Some focus on the general concept of language (what we call lengua or lenguaje) and some focus on the more specific notion of a language (what we call lengua or idioma).

SAPIR (1921) said that “language is a purely human non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols”. HALL (1964) defined language as “the institution whereby humans communicate and interact whith each other by means of habitually used oral-auditory arbitrary symbols”. As we can see in these two definitions it is diffi cult to make a precise and comprehensive statement about formal adn functional universal properties of language so some linguists have trien to indentify the various properties that are thought to be its essential defining characteristics.

The most widely acknowledged comparative approach has been the one proposed by Charles HOCKETT. His set of 13 design features of communication using spoken language were as follows:

Auditory-vocal channel: sound is used between mouth and ear.

Broadcast transmission and directional reception: a signal can be heard by any auditory system within earshot, and the source can be located using the ears’ direction-finding ability.

Rapid fading: auditory signals are transitory.

Interchangeability: speakers of a language can reproduce any linguistic message they can understand.

Total feedback: speakers hear and can reflect upon everything that they say.

Specitalization: the sound waves of speech have no other function than to signal meaning.

Semanticity: the elemens of the signal convey meaning through their stable association with real-world situations.

Arbitrariness: there is no dependence of the element of the signal on the nature of the reality to which it refers.

Discreteness: speech uses a small set of sound elements tha clearly contrast whith each other.

Displacement: it is possible to talk about events remote in space or time from the situation of the speaker.

Productivity: ther is an infinite capacity to express and understand meaning, by using old setence elements to produce new sentences.

Traditional transmissión: language is transmitted from one generation to the next primarily by a process of teaching and learning.

Duality of pottering: the sound of language have no intrinsic meaning, but combine in diferents ways to form elements, such as words, than do convey meaning.

After having studied thje main properties of language (what is language?) we will now see its function (whats language for?).

1.2. Language Functions.

The most usual answer to the question “why do we use language?” is “to communicate our ideas” and this ability to communicate or communicative competence is studied in the next part. But it would be wrong to think of communicating our ideas as the only way in which we use language (referential, ideational or propositional function). Several other functions may be indentified where the communication of ideas is a marginal or irrelevant consideration.

One of the commonest uses of languages, the expressive or emotional one, is a means of getting rid of our nervous energy when we are under stress. We do not try to communicate ideas because we can use language in this way whether we are alone or not. Swear words and obscenities are problably the most usual signals to be used in this way, especially when we are angry. But there are also many emotive utterances of positive kind, such as expressions of fear, affection, astonishment…

MALINOWSKY (1844-1942) termed the third use of language we are studying “phatic communication”. He used it to refere to the social function of language, which arises out of the basic human need to signal friendship, or, at least, lack of enmity. If someone does not say hello to you when hi is supposed to, you may think hi is hostile. In these cases the sole function of language is to maintain a comfortable relationship between people, to provide a means of avoiding an embarrassing situation. Phatic communication, however, is far from universal, some cultures prefer silence, eg, the Aritama of Colombia.

The fourth function we may find is based on phonetic properties. The rhythmical litanies of religious groups, the presuasive cadences of political speechmaking, the dialogue chants used by prisoner or soldiers have only one apparent reason: people take delight in them. They can only be explained by a universal desire to exploit the sonic potential of language.

The fith function is the performative one. A performative sentence ins an utterance that performs an act. This use occurs in the naming of a ship at a launching ceremony, or when a priest baptizes a child.

We may also finde other functions such as:

– recording facts.

– Instrument of thought

– Expression of regional, social, educational, sexual or occupational identity.

The British linguist HALLIDAY grouped all these functions into three metafunctions, shich are the manifestation in the linguistic system of the two veryu general purposes shich underlie all uses of language combine whith the rhird component (textual) shich brethes relevance into the other two.

1.- The ideational function is to organize the speaker’s or writer’s experience of the real or imaginary world, i.e. language refers to real or imagined persons, things, actions, events, states,etc.

2.- The interpersonal function is to indicate, establish or mantain social relationships between people. It includes forms of address, speech function, modality …

3.- The third component is the textual function which serves to create written or spoken texts which cohere within themselves and which fit the particular situation in which they are used.

1.3. Communicative competence

CHOMSKY (1957) defined language as `a set of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements. A capable speaker has a subconscious knowledge of the grammar rules of his language which allows him to make sentences in that language’. However, Dell HYMES thought that Chomsky had missed out some very important information: the rules of the use. When a native speaker speaks, he does not onlu utter grammatically correct forms, he also knows where and when to use these sentences and to whom. Hymes, then, said that competence by itself is not enough to explain a native speaker’s knowledge, and he replaced it with his own concept of communicative competence.

HYMES distinguishes 4 aspects of this competence:

– systematic potential

– appropriacy

– occurrence

– feasibility

Systematic potential means that the native speaker possesses a system that has a potential for creating a lot of language. This is similar to Comsky’s competence.

Appropriacy means that the native speaker knows what language is appropriate in a given situation. His choice is based on the following variables, among others:






Occurrence means that the native speaker knows how often something is said in the language and acts accordingly.

Feasibility means that the native speaker knows whether something is possible in the language. Even if there is no grammatical rule to ban 20-adjective prehead construction, we know that these constructions are not possible in the language.

These 4 categories have been adapted for teaching purposes. Thus, the Royal Decree 1006/1991 of 14 June (BOE 25 June), which establishes the teaching requirements for Primary Education nationwide, sees communicative competence as comprising five subcompetences:

Grammar competence (competencia gramatical, o capacidad de poner en práctica las unidades y reglas de funcionamiento del sistema de la lengua).

Discourse competence (competencia discursiva o capacidad de utilizar diferentes tipos de discurso y organizarlos en función de la situación comunicativa y de los inetrlocutores).

Sociolinguistic competence ( competencia sociolingüística o capacidad de adecuar los enunciados a un contexto concreto, atendiendo a los usos aceptados en una comunidad lingüística determinada).

Strategic competence ( competencia estratégica o capacidad para definir, corregir, matizar o en general, realizar ajustes en el curso de la situación comunicativa).

Sociocultural competence ( competencia sociocultural, entendida como un cierto grado de familiaridad con el contexto social y cultural en el que se utiliza una determinada lengua).

The terms grammar, sociolinguistic and sociocultural competence are quite self explanatory so we will only analyze discourse and strategic competence.

CANALE (1980) defined discourse competence as an aspect of communicative competence which describes the ability to produce unified written or spoken discourse that shows coherence and cohesion and which conforms to the norms of different genres. Our pupils must be able to produce discourse in which successive utterances are linked through ruoles of discourse competence.

Strategic competence may be defined as an aspect of communicative competence which describes the ability of speakers to use verbal and non-verbal communication strategies to compensate for breakdowns in communication or to improve the effectiveness of communication.


It is traditionl in language study to distinguish between spoken and written language. Before summarizing their main differences we will outline their main features independently.

2.1.Spoken Language

The most obvious aspect of language is speech. Speech is not essential to the definition of an infinitely productive communication system, such as it is constituted by language. But, in fact, speech is the universal material of human language. Man has been a speaking animal from early in the emergence of Homo Sapiens as a recognizable distinct species. The earliest known systems of writing go back perhaps 5.000 years. This means that for many hundreds of thousands of years human language were transmitted and developed entirely as spoken means of communication.

The description and clasification of sounds is the main aim of phonetics. Sounds may be identified with reference to their production, transmission and reception. These three activities occur at a physiological level, which implies the action of nerves and muscles. The motor nerves that link the speaker’s brain with his speech mechanism activate the corresponding muscle. The movements of the tongue, lips, vocal folds, etc. Constitute the articulatory stage of the speech chain, and the area of phonetics that deals with it is articulatory phonetics.The movement of the articulators produces disturbances in the air pressure called sound waves, which are physical manifestations. This is the acoustic stage of the chain, during which the sound waves travel towards the listener’s ear-drum. The study of speech sound waves correspons to acoustic phonetics. The hearing process is the domain of auditory phonetics. This can be seen in the following table:


clip_image001clip_image002CHAIN MECHANISM WAVES

  clip_image001[1] clip_image001[2]
 clip_image003  clip_image003[1]

Activity psychological physiological physical physiological psychologicals stage linguistic production transmission perception linguistic

 clip_image003[2] clip_image001[3] clip_image001[4] clip_image003[3]

Phonetics articulatory acoustic auditory

phonetics phonetics phonetics

In this table we can see how phonetics is the study of all possible speech sounds.

This is not the most important task for linguist, however. A linguist must study the way in which a language’s speakers systematically use a selection of theses sounds in order to express meaning. In this activity he is helped by phonology. Phonology is continually loking beneath th surface of speech to determine its underlying regularities. It is not interested in sounds but in phonemes, ie. Smallest contrastive phonological units which can produce a difference in meaning. The study of speech is therefore, the field of both Phonetics and Phonology.

2.2.Written language.

Myths and legends of the supernatural shroud the early history of writing. One point, at least, is fairly clear. It now seems most likely that writing systems evolved independently of each other at different times in several parts of the world –in Mesopotamia, China… There is nothing to support a theory of common origin.

We can classify writting systems into two types:

– Non-phonological.

– Phonological.

Non-phonological systems do not show a clear relationship between the symbols and the sounds of the language. They include the pictographic, ideographic, cuneiform and egyptian hieroglyphic and logographic.

In the pictographic system, the graphemes or pictographs or pictograms provide a recognizable picture of entities as they exist in the world.

Ideograms or ideographs have an abstract or conventional meaning, no longer displaying a clear pictorial link whith external reality.

The cuneiform method of writing dates from the 4th. Millennium BC, and was used to express both non-phonological and phonological writing systems. The name derives from the Latin, meaning ‘wedge-shaped’ and refers to the technique used to make the symbols.

Egyptian hieroglyphic developed about 3000 BC. It is a mixture of ideograms, phonograms and determinative symbols. It was called hieroglyphic because of its prominent use in temples ad tombs (Greek, ‘sacred carving”).

Logographic writing systems are those where the graphemes represent words. The best known case is Chinese and Japanese kanji. The symbols are variously referred to as logographs, logograms or characters.

Phonological systems do show a clear relationship between the symbols and the sounds of language. We can distinguish syllabic and alphabetic systems.

In a system of syllabic writing, each grapheme corresponds to a spoken syllable, usually a consonant-vowel pair. This system can be seen in Japanese Kataka.

Alphabetic writing establishes a direct correspondence between graphemes and morphemes. This makes it the most economic and adaptable of all the writing systems. In a perfectly regular sustem there is one grapheme for each morpheme. However, most alphabets in present day use fail to meet this criterion. At one extreme we find such languages as Spanish, which has a very regular system; at the other, we find such cases as English and Gaelic, where there is a marked tendency to irregularity.

2.3.Historical attitudes.

Historically speaking, written language was considered tobe superior to spoken language for many centuries. It was the medium of literature, and literature was considered a source of standards of linguistic excellence. Witten records provide language with permanence and authority and so the rules of grammar were illustrated exclusively from written texts.

On the other hand, spoken language was ignored as an object unworthy of study. Spoken language demostrates such a lack of care and organization that cannot be studied scientifically; it was said to have no rules, and speakers have thought that, in order to speak properly, it was necessary to follow the correct norm. As this norm was based on written standards, it is clear that the prescriptive tradition rested supremacy of writing over speech.

This viewpiont became widely criticized at the turn of our century. Leonard Bloomfield insisted that “writing is not language but merely a way of recording language by means of visible marks”. This approach pointed out several factors, some of which we have already mentioned:

– Speech is many centuries older than writing

– It developes naturally in children

– Writing systems are mostly derivative, ie, they are based on the sounds of speech.

If speech is the primary medium of communication, it was also argued that it should be the main object of linguistic study. Actually, the majority of the world’s cultures’ languages have never been written down and this has nothing to do with their evolutionary degree. It is a fallacy to suppose that the languages of illiterate or so-called primitive peoples are less structured, less rich in vocabulary, and less efficient than the languages of literate civilization. E. Sapir was one of the first linguistics to attack the myth that primitive peoples spoke primitive languages. In one study he compared the grammatical equivalents of the sentence “he will give it to you” in six Amerindian languages. Among many fascinating features of these complex grammatical forms, note the level of abstraction introduced by the following example:

Southern Paiute

Maya-vaania-aka-anga-‘mi= guve will visible-thing visible-creature thee

Many linguistics and ethnographerstherefore stressed the urgency of providing techniques for the analysis of spoken language and because of this emphasis on the spoken language, it was now the turn of writing to fall into disrepute. Many linguistics came to think of written language as a tool of secundary inportance. Writing came to be excluded from the primary subject matter of linguistic science. Many grammarians presented an account of speech alone.

Nowadays, there is no sense in the view that one medium of communication is untrinsically better. Writing cannot substitute for speech, nor speech for writing. The functions of speech and writing are usually said to complement each other.

On the other hand, there are many functional para llels which seem to be increase in modern society. We cannot use recording devices to keep facts and communicate ideas. On the other hand writing is also taken the social of phatic function typically associated with the immediacy of speech.

Despite these parallels we can obviously find striking differences.

2.4.Differences between writing and speech

Research has begun to investigate the nature and extent of the differences between them. Most obviously, they contrast in physical form:

– Specch uses phonic substance typically in the form of air-pressure movements

– Writing uses graphic substance typically in the form of marks on a surface.

Differences of structure and use are the product of radically different communicative situations. Crystal (1987) pointed that `speech is tme-bound, dynamic, transient, part of an interaction in which, typically, both participants are present, and the speaker has a specific addressee in mind´. Writing is space-bound, static, permanent, the result of a situation in which, typically, the producer is distant from the recipient and, often, may not even know who the recipient is. As writing can only occasionally be thought of as an interaction it is just normal that we can establish the following points of contrast:

1.- The permanence of writing allows repeated reading and close analysis. The spontaneity and rapidity of speech minimizes the chance of complex preplanning, and promotes features that assist to think standing up.

2.- The participants in written interaction cannot usually see each other, and they thus cannot rely on the context to help make clear what they mean as they would when speaking. As a consequence, deictic expressions are normally avoided. On the other hand, feedback is available in most speech interactions.

3.- The majority of graphic features present a system of contrast that has no speech equivalent. Many genres of written language, such as tables, graphs, and complex formulae, cannot be conveyed by reading aloud.

4.- Some constructions may be found onlu¡y in writing, such as the French simple past, and others only occur in speech, such as `whatchamacallit´, or slang expressions.

5.- Finally we can say that written language tends to be more formal and so it is more likely to provide the standard that society values.

Despite these differences, there are many respects in which the written and the spoken language have mutually interacted. We normally use the written language in order to improve our command of vocabulary, active or passive, spoken or written. Loan words may come into a country in a written form, and sometimes, everything we know about language is its writing.


3.1. Definition

Communication, the exchange of meanings between individuals through a common system of symbols, concerned scholars since the time of ancient Greece. In 1928 the English literary critic and author Ivor Armtrong Richards offered one of the first definitions of communication.

Since about 1920 the growth and apparent influence of communication technology have attracted the attention of many specialists who have attempted to isolate communication as a specific facet of their particular interest.

In the1960s, Marshall McLuhan, drew the threads of interest in the field of communication into a view that associated many contemporary psychological and sociological phenomena with the media employed in modern culture. McLuhan’s idea, `the medium is the message´, stimulated numerous filmmakers, photographers, and others, who adopted McLuhan´s view that contemporary society had moved from a print culture to a visual one.

By the late 20th century the main focus of interest in communication seemed to be drifting away from McLuhanism and to be centring upon:

1.- The mass communication industries

2.- Persuasive communication and the use of technology to influence dispositions

3.- Processes of interpersonal communication as mediators of information

4.- Dynamics of verbal and non-verbal (and perhaps extrasensory) communication

5.- Perception of different kinds of communication

6.- Uses of communication technology for social and artistic purposes, including education

7.- Development of relevant critism for artistic endeavours employing modern communication technology.

In short, a communication expert may be oriented to any number of disciplines in a field of inquiry that has, as yet, neither drawn for itself a conclusive roster of subject matter nor agreed upon specific methodologies of analysis.

3.2. Models

Fragmentation and problems of interdisciplinarity outlook have generated a wide range of discussion concerning the ways in which communication occurs and the processes it entails. Most communication theorists admit that their main task is to answer the query originally posed by the U.S political scientist H. D. Lasswell, `Who says what to whom with what effect?´. Obviously all of the factors in this question may be interpreted differently by scholars and writers in different disciplines. Scientists may make use of dynamic or linear models.

3.2.1. Dynamic models.

Dynamic models are used in describe cognitive, emotional, and artistic aspects of communication as they occur in sociocultural contexts. These models do not try to be quantitative as linear ones. They often centre attention upon different modes of communication and theorize that the messages they contain including messages of emotional quality and artistic content, are communicated in various manners to and from different sorts of people.

Many analysts of communication such as McLuhan assert that the channel actually dictates, or severely influences, the message, both as sent and received. For them, the stability and function of channel or medium are more variable and less mechanistically related to the process than they are for followers of Shannon and Weaver.

3.2.2. Linear models: Shannon and Weaver’s.

Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s Mathematical Model of Communication is one of the most productive schematic models of a communication systems that has ever been proposed. The simplicity, clarity, and surface generally of their model proved attractive to many students of communication in a number of disciplines. As originally conceived, the model contained five elements arranged in linear order:

– An information source

– A transmiter

– A channel of transmission

– A receiver

– A destination

This model was originally intended for electronic messages so, in time, the five elements of the model were renamed so as to specify components for other types of communication transmitted in various manners. The information source was split into its components to provide a wider range of applicability:

– a source

– an encoder

– a message

– a channel

– a decoder

– a receiver

Another concept, first called a `noise source´ but later associated with the notion of entropy was imposed upon the communication model. Entropy diminishes the integrity of the message and distorts the message for the receiver. Negative entropy may also occur in instances where incomplete or blurred messages are nevertheless received intact, either because of the ability of the receiver to fill in missing details or to recognize, despite distortion or paucity of information, both the intent and the content of the communication.

But not only negative entropy counteracts entropy. Redundancy, the repetition of elements within a message that prevents the failure of communication of information, is the greatest antidote to entropy. Redundancy is apparently involved in most human activities, and, because it helps to overcome the various forms of entropy that tends to turn intelligible messages into unintelligible ones, it is an indispensable element for effective communication.

We can see that the model, despite the introduction of entropy and redundancy, is conceptually static. To correct this flaw, Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, added the principle of feedback, ie, sources tend to be responsive to their own behaviour and to the context of communication. Interaction between human beings in conversation cannot function without the ability of the message sender to weigh and calculate the apparent effect of this words on his listener.

We will now analyze each of these key factors.

3.3. Key factors

This unit title mentions some of the key factors affecting any communicative interaction such as the sender and the receiver. After putting them in the broader framework of the Mathematical Model of Communication we will analyze the intended effects of our communicative interactions (speech acts) and the environment in which they are exchanged (social context).

The information source selects a desired message out of a possible set of messages. The transmitter changes the message into a signal which is sent over the communication channel where it is received by the receiver and changed back into a message which is sent to the destination. In the process of transmission certain unwanted additions to the signal may occur which are not part of the message and these are referred to as noise or entropy; negative entropy and redundancy counteract entropy. For somo communication systems the components are simple to specify as, for instance:

– information source: a man on the telephone

– transmitter: the mouthpiece

– message and signal: the words the man speaks

– channel: the electrical wires

– receiver: the earpiece

– destination: the listener

In face-to-face communication, the speaker can be both information source and transmitter, while the listener can be both receiver and destination.

3.3.1. Speech acts.

J.L. Austin (1911-1960) was the first to draw attention to the many functions performed by utterances as part of interpersonal communication. He distinguishes two main types of functional potential:

– performative

– contative

A performative is an utterance that perform an act: to say is to act, as we have already seen when studying language functions. Performatives may be explicit and implicit performatives, which do not contain a performative verb.

Constatives are utterances which assert something that is either true or false.

In speech act analysis the effect of utterances on the behaviour of speaker and hearer is studies using a threefold distinction:

A locutionary act is the saying of something which is meaningful and can be understood. For example, saying the sentence `shoot the snake´ is a locutionary act if hearers understand the words `shoot´, `the´and `snake´ and can identify the particular snake referred to.

An illocutionary act is using a sentence to perform a function. For example `shoot the snake´may be intended as an order or a piece of advice.

A perlocutionary act is the result or effect that is produced by means of saying something. For example, shooting the snake would be a perlocutionary act.

Austin´s three-part distinction is less frequently used than a two part distinction between the propositional content of a sentence and the illocutionary force or intended effects of speech acts. There are thousands of possible illocutionary acts, and several attempts have been made to classify them into a small number of types:

– representatives

– directives

– commisives

– expressives

– declarations

In declaratives the speaker is committed in varying degrees, to the truth of a proposition.

In directives the speaker tries to get the hearer to do something.

In commissives the speaker is committed, in varying degrees, to a certain course of action.

In expressives the speaker expresses an attitude about a state of affairs.

In declarations the speaker alters the external status or conditions of an object or situation solely by making the utterance.

As we can infer from the examples there are some fuzzy areas and overlappings between different types of illocutionary force. But an utterance may lose its illocutionary force if does not satisfy several criteria, known as felicity conditions. For example the preparatory conditions have to be right: the person performing the speech act has to have the authority to do so.

Ordinary people automatically accept these conditions when they communicate. If any of these conditions does not obtain, then a special interpretation of the speech act has to apply. Both normal and special interpretations of utterances have much to do with the context in which they are made.

3.3.2. Context.

Context is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as:

1. The parts of a piece of writing, speech, etc, that precede and follow a word or passage and contribute to its full meaning.

2. The conditions and circumstances that are relevant to an event, fact, etc.

The first definition covers what we may call linguistic context, but as we can infer from the second definition, linguistic context may not be enough to fully understand an utterance understood as a speech act. In fact, linguistic elements in a text may refer not only to other parts of the text but also to the outside world, to the context of situation.

The concept of context of situation was formulated by Malinowski in 1923. It has been worked over and extended by a number of linguistics, specially Hymes and Halliday. Hymes categorizes the communicative situation in terms of eight components while Halliday offers three headings for the analysis:





1. Form and content of text

2. Setting

3. Participants

4. Ends

5. Key

6. Medium

7. Genre

8. Interactional norms

1. field

2. mode

3. tenor

We will now analyze Halliday´s more abstract interpretation as it practically subsumes Hymes´s one.

The field is the total event, in which the text is functioning, together with the purpose activity of the speaker or writer; it thus includes the suject matter as one element in it.

The mode is the function of the text in the event, including therefore both the channel taken by the language, and its genre or rethorical mode, as narrative, didactic, persuasive and so on.

The tenor refers to to the participants who are taking part in this communicative exchange, who they are and what kind of relationship thay have to one another. It is clear that role relationships, ie, the relationship which people have to each other in a act of communication, influences the way they speak to each other. One of the speakers may have, for instance, a role which has a higher status than that of the other speaker or speakers.


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