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

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


By age four, most humans have developed an ability to communicate through oral language.  By age six or seven, most humans can comprehend, as well as express, written thoughts.  These unique abilities of communicating through a native language clearly separate humans from all animals.  The obvious question then arises, where did we obtain this distinctive trait?  Linguistic research, combined with neurological studies, has determined that human speech is highly dependent on a neuronal network located in specific sites within the brain. But science has not been able to prove how speech came about or why we have so many different languages. Nobody knows exactly how many languages there are in the world, partly because of the difficulty of distinguishing between a language and a sub-language (or dialects within it).  One authoritative source that has collected data from all over the world, The Ethnologue, listed the total number of languages as 6809 (or close to seven thousand)

As regards the origin of language, evolutionary linguists believe that all human languages have descended from a single, primitive language, which itself evolved from the grunts and noises of the lower animals, such as apes (monkeys), but the available linguistic evidence does not support this model. However, there is evidence that the variety of dialects and sub-languages has developed from a relatively small number (perhaps even less than twenty) languages.  These original ‘proto-languages’—from which all others allegedly have developed—were distinct within themselves, with no previous ancestral language.

The single most influential theory of the evolution of human language was proposed by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky, and has since been echoed by numerous linguists, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists.  Chomsky argued that the innate ability of children to acquire the grammar necessary for a language can be explained only if one assumes that all grammars are variations of a single, generic ‘universal grammar’, and that all human brains come ‘with a built-in language organ that contains this language blueprint. In other words, Chomsky believed that language is an innate ability in humankind.

(Definition of communication) In any case, the purpose of language is communication, and communication is defined as “the exchange and negotiation of information between at least two individuals through the use of verbal and non-verbal symbols, oral and written/visual modes, and production and comprehension processes“. From this definition we can conclude that language as communication

• is a form of social interaction

• it involves a high degree of unpredictability and creativity.

• it always has a purpose.

The primary purpose of language is to express oneself, to communicate ideas, desires, emotions, etc. Language communicates in any of its forms. For example, even an index communicates.

Although language is an essential tool of human communication, other means should be taken into account, such as gestures, body language and so on, because those non-verbal symbols are also components of the communication process.

Language is exclusively used by, and exclusively inherent to, humans. But communication also exists among other animal species. Many animals are capable of using sounds to communicate, and, like ourselves, they also communicate through body language.

However we should bear in mind the fact that there exists a distinction between human language and other systems of communication, such as animal communication systems. Among the characteristics of human language in opposition to other systems we may mention:

• Auditory-vocal channel: in opposition to tactile, visual or other means.

• Interchangeability of messages (individuals can reproduce any message they can understand)

• Productivity: there are an infinite number of possible messages to be expressed.

• Displacement: possibility to talk about events remote in space or time.

• Duality: the sounds of a language have no intrinsic meaning, but combine in different ways to form elements that do convey meaning.

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

Of course there are many others but we have regarded these as the most important.

Regarding the use of the auditory-vocal channel to produce speech, we need to add that non-linguistic communicative uses of the vocal tract are also possible, such as whistling, musical effects, and so on. All these effects are grouped together as of “paralanguage”.

On the other hand, some people with auditory-vocal impairments (discapacidades) use visual and tactile modes, such as Braille, or language signs for the deaf (sordos)

Because language is made up of words, we will briefly explain the word as Linguistic Sign. This term, linguistic sign, was first used by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who is considered the father of Structural linguistics. Saussure addressed the obvious but also revolutionary idea that words are not the things they attempt to represent. This means that things are named in a rather arbitrary and conventional way. The sign is arbitrary because there is no reason that the letters “c-a-t” –or the sound of those phonemes– produce a four-legged domesticated feline on our brains. The signs themselves are composed of two parts: the signifier (the letters on the page or the sound that we produce when we say the word) and the signified (the concept that appears on our brain when we read or hear the signifier)

Writing and speech.

Now, let us move onto the next part of topic, which deals with writing and speech. I would like to introduce this section with a famous quotation from a Frenchman, the Comte de Buffon, 1753 who said: Those who write as they speak, even though they speak well, write badly. The fact is that there are important differences between writing and speech.

The most obvious difference is that speech is spoken and heard, while writing is written and read. But there are many other differences. We shall wee them in detail:

Speech comes before writing historically. Speech goes back to human beginnings whereas writing is relatively recent. It was first invented by the Sumerians, in Mesopotamia, around 3200 B.C. Since then, the idea of writing has spread around the world and different writing systems have evolved in different parts of the world.

  Another difference is Universality. Humans everywhere can speak. But before the Sumerian invention, people were non-literate. Even now there are many non-literate groups, e.g. certain tribes in Brazil, and many non-literate people in officially literate societies.

Many languages lack a written form.

Acquisition. Children automatically learn to speak but have to be taught how to read.

The spoken language is : Ephemeral, Dynamic, Auditory , and structured in time. // The written language, on the other hand, is : Permanent, Static, Visual, and structured in space

The permanence of writing allows repeated reading and close analysis. The spontaneity and rapidity of speech minimises the chance of complex pre-planning

Information in speech is usually given in a linear or chronological order. In writing, information can be organised in many different ways.

Oral communication can be significantly more effective in expressing meaning to an audience.  This is because of the extensive repertoire of signals available to the speaker: gestures, intonation, inflection, volume, pitch, pauses, movement, visual cues such as appearance, and a whole host of other ways to communicate meaning. // Writing does not usually involve direct interaction, except for personal letters and perhaps some computer based communication such as e-mail.

Speakers are expected to tell the truth. They should not say things they know to be false or for which they lack adequate evidence. However, the first written texts we introduce young children to are most likely to be fiction, and we expect children to write fiction

The basic unit of written language is the sentence. The basic unit of spoken language is the tone group.

  Until the invention of magnetic recording, speech could not be captured or preserved, except by fallible memories and by writing. But writing can be preserved for millennia. Its permanence has made possible such human institutions as libraries, histories, schedules, dictionaries, and what we generally call ‘civilization’.

  Nonliterate societies have traditions–songs, rituals, legends, myths–composed orally and preserved by memory. Such texts may be called oral literature. By contrast, writing permits what is more often called ‘literature’, i.e. bodies of text which are much larger and more codified than memory permits.

Writing can be perceived as colder or more impersonal than speech.

Standardization. Spoken languages have dialects–forms varying across geographical areas and social groups. But there is usually a single written norm.

Formality. Communication may be formal or casual. In literate societies, writing may be associated with formal style and speech, with casual style. 

Change. Spoken language, everywhere and always, undergoes continual change of which speakers may be relatively unaware. Written language, because of its permanence and standardization, shows slower and less sweeping changes; the spelling of English has changed much less than its pronunciation since Chaucer’s time.

There are graphic features that have no speech equivalent. E.g., tables, graphs and complex formulae, cannot be conveyed by reading aloud.

Some constructions are more typically found in writing, others only occur mostly in speech, such as in slang and swear words.



have eye contact with the listeners

do not usually write with their readers present

point to or refer to things in their environment

cannot assume a shared environment with their readers

expect encouragement and co-operation from listeners to produce conversation

have to create and sustain their own belief in what they are doing

use intonation, stress, loudness, and body language to help make their meaning clear

use graphic cues such as punctuation, paragraphing, bold print, and diagrams to help make their meaning clear

rephrase or repeat when they think their message is not clear

take time to think and rethink as they write, often revising and editing their work

know that all their hesitations will be heard by, and acceptable to, the listener

know that the reader will not see any rephrasings and alterations they make to the text in the process of writing

Now that we have examined the differences between speech and written language

we shall focus on the factors involved in a communicative act.

Many different definitions have been proposed by theorists to describe the structure of communication. The earliest communication frameworks were based on the process of signal transmission in telecommunication systems (transmission de señales en las telecomunicaciones). According to most authors communication is defined as the transfer of information – a message – from a transmitter or source to a receiver in the form of a signal, which is sometimes modified by disturbance -or “noise” – in the transmission system itself.

One undeniable advantage of technical communication models is that they provide a general description of communication, but these models cannot take account of the specifically linguistic features of verbal language, or of the process of sense-making typical of the communicative processes.

One of the clearest theoretical rejections of the analogy between verbal communication and physical data transmission has come from Jakobson, who links the six physical components of communication – sender, message, receiver, context, code, contact – to six linguistic functions – expressive, connotative, phatic, metalinguistic, denotative-referential, poetic – which establish the intentionality of the communicative act. However, the linguistic models of communication also proved unsatisfactory. In fact communication, though basically a linguistic phenomenon, is also affected by the psycho-social relationships between the subjects involved in it.

The factors involved in human communication can be summarised as follows:

The information source is the speaker, for example, a man on the telephone

The transmitter would be the telephone mouthpiece

The message is the content of information that the speaker sends to the listener. In this case, the words the man speaks.

The code is the group of signs which combine according to certain rules known by the speaker and by the listener. Language is a code.

The channel is the place through which the message flows. In this case would be the electrical wires

The receiver would be the earpiece

The destination would be the listener

The context is the situation in which the speaker and the listener are in, which sometimes helps to interpret the message.


To conclude this essay, I would like to make some practical considerations relating the topic to English teaching practice in the setting of Primary Education in Spain. Since the topic deals with communication, I would like to stress the fact that using English as the language of communication in English class is the means towards achieving communicative competence. As is usual and common with beginners, there is a need to stress the oral skills, helping students to be confident in their use and understanding of the spoken language. And at the same time, the written language should be introduced gradually in the first cycle and working towards a certain degree of reading and writing autonomy towards the end of the Primary Education stage. In this way, we will contribute to the development of Communication skills, which is the first of the 8 basic competences established in our current curriculum.



One of the most productive schematic models of a communication system emerged from the speculations of the linguist Jacobson. Jacobson worked on and broadened the basic communication model first developed by Ferdinand de Saussure and later by linguists such as Buhler.

His model is not the only one, but its clarity has made it become the best known.

It contains the following elements





• ADDRESSER or Encoder who is regarded as the source, the person who sends a message.

• MESSAGE: the information to be sent.

• ADDRESSEE or Decoder, that is the receiver of the message.

• CONTEXT or Referent, that is a topic or idea in common between addresser and addressee,

for the message to be operative and seizable by the addressee. It should be either verbal or capable of being verbalised.

• CODE: which should be at least partially common to the addresser and addressee, for the message to be understood.

• CHANNEL, either physical (the air, a telephone line) or psychological connection between addresser and addressee, thus enabling both to enter and stay in communication

Each of these elements has a correspondence in the functions of language, which we will be dealing with in the following section.

The functions of language

Several classifications of linguistic functions have been attempted by different scholars. Given that language has been defined as a tool for communicative interaction, it is absolutely necessary to establish the different purposes such communication may serve.

The concept of linguistic function

The word function may be considered 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.

Classifications of linguistic functions

In this subsection, we will focus on the different classifications of the purposes why people use language.

MALINOWSKY, an ANTHROPOLOGIST, established that within a human society language had 2 main purposes:

  1. Pragmatic: that’s a practical use of language, either active (by means of speech) or narrative (written texts)
  2. Ritual or Magic: the use of language associated to ceremonies.

SAUSSURE, father of modern linguistics developed a formal communication model where you find the basic elements present: the SENDER , the RECEIVER, the MESSAGE, and the CODE.

In a bilateral context, such as a conversation, sender and receiver switched roles alternatively.

BÜHLER: a psychologist, classified the functions from the point of view of the individual, (SENDER and RECEIVER)

Since individuals don’t communicate in a vacuum, he adds the element of CONTEXT (OR ENVIRONMENT) that inevitably affects the communicative process.


that are still valid today. (and which may be said are derived from grammar)

1. Expressive oriented towards the speaker (or: centered on the sender). (Verbal 1st person)

2. Conative: oriented towards the addressee (or: centered on the receiver). (Verbal 2nd person)

3. Representational: oriented towards the rest of reality.(or: centered on CONTEXT) (Verbal 3rd person)


Jacobson developed his model at a late stage of his long and complicated career. (Moscow, Prague, America) In a way his model is an expression or formalization of the ‘state of the art’ in the field of formalist lingusitics around the late nineteen-forties.

His classification may be said to comprise Bühler’s plus three more functions.

The functions he establishes are derived from the constituents of his communicative model:

Buhler’s EXPRESSIVE function is split into two functions: the EMOTIVE and the POETIC function. Both are highly personal (i.e.; centered on the SENDER) and convey the sender’s personal feelings, reactions, artistic creation, etc. He also decides to use the term REFERENTIAL instead of Buhler’s REPRESENTATIONAL.

1. Emotive: it’s generated by and related to the speaker’s attitude. A mood is projected in this use of language. Thus this function is related to the feelings the speaker wants to transmit.

2. Conative: it’s oriented towards the addressee, and language is used to cause some effect

on the addressee, that is to say, it intends to provoke some sort of response or behaviour.

3. Referential: (REPRESENTATIONAL) considered as the clearest function of language, given that it’s related to the context. In this use of language, the message always deals with something different to the speaker and addressee themselves, but they are still involved.

4. Phatic or transactional: oriented towards the channel. As an example we may refer to the sort of messages whose aim is just to check that the communication still exists, and which also intend to keep the channel busy.

5. Metalingual: oriented towards the code. It makes reference to the fact that language may serve the purpose of speaking about the language itself.

6. Poetic: oriented towards the message. The importance of communication is related to the message itself, to its beauty etc, that is to say, the referent looses its importance in favour of the way something is expressed.

SHANNON developed the concept of CHANNEL, of MESSAGE within the channel, in coded form, and of NOISE. Communication succeeds when the Signal to Noise Ratio is favourable enough to avoid the drowning out of the message by external noise.

Shannon also developed the concept of ‘managing the channel’: Opening it, keeping it open and closing it. The PHATIC function fulfills these roles. Opening the channel: (Good Morning, glad to see you!, or Dear Sir:…) Closing it (See you later, good bye!, or Truly yours, (signature).) and keeping it open through acknowledgments. (A-ha!, yes, etc) or physical signs, such as a nod.

Working from different field of study, the anthropologist MALINOWSKI had also noted the existence of a PHATIC function in human societies that serves to initiate or end verbal communication.

The functions of language from a semantic point of view

It was Halliday the one to deal with linguistic functions from the point of view of Semantics, given that the functions of language are to be considered as fundamental properties of such a language, that is, components of a linguistic system, and to be usually overlapped. Thus different semantic functions may be identified, while speakers construct in their minds models of the context of the communicative situation:

Ideational function: related to the organisation of the speaker’s experience of the real world in the communication process is associated to a certain Field.

Interpersonal function: related to the ability of the speaker to recognise the personal

relationships involved (Tenor is identified)

Textual: related to the ability of creating written /spoken texts that show coherence and fit in the context of use (related to the Mode)