Communicative competence

Communicative competence is a linguistic term which refers to a learner's L2 ability. It not only refers to a learner's ability to apply and use grammatical rules, but also to form correct utterances, and know how to use these utterances appropriately. The term unlies the view of language learning implicit in the communicative approach to language teaching.

The term was coined by Dell Hymes in 1966, reacting against the perceived inadequacy of Noam Chomsky's (1965) distinction between competence and performance. Hymes' ideas about communicative competence were originally research-based rather than pedagogical. Specifically, to address Chomsky's abstract notion of competence, Hymes (1972; 1977; 1994) discussed the ethnographic-oriented exploration of communicative competence that included 'communicative form and function in integral relation to each other. His research-oriented ideas have undergone an epistemic transformation: from empirically oriented questions to an idealized pedagogic doctrine' (Leung, 2005).

Chomsky's view of linguistic competence, however, was not intended to inform pedagogy, but serve as part of developing a theory of the linguistic system itself, idealized as the abstract language knowledge of the monolingual adult native speaker, and distinct from how they happen to use and experience language. Hymes, rather than Chomsky, had developed a theory of education and learning.

Canale and Swain (1980) defined communicative competence in terms of four components:

  1. grammatical competence: words and rules
  2. sociolinguistic competence: appropriateness
  3. discourse competence: cohesion and coherence
  4. strategic competence: appropriate use of communication strategies

Canale and Swain's definition has become canonical in applied linguistics.

A more recent survey of communicative competence by Bachman (1990) divides it into the broad headings of "organizational competence," which includes both grammatical and discourse (or textual) competence, and "pragmatic competence," which includes both sociolinguistic and "illocutionary" competence.

Through the influence of communicative language teaching, it has become widely accepted that communicative competence should be the goal of language education, central to good classroom practice (e.g. Savignon 1998). This is in contrast to previous views in which grammatical competence was commonly given top priority. The understanding of communicative competence has been influenced by the field of pragmatics and the philosophy of language concerning speech acts as described in large part by John Searle and J.L. Austin.

External links



Bachman, L. (1990). Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-437003-8

Canale, M. and Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics 1, 1-47.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Synntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hymes, D.H. (1971). On communicative competence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Extracts available in Brumfit, C.J. & Johnson, K. (Eds.) (1979), The communicative approach to language teaching, pp. 5-26. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-437078-X

Leung, C. (2005). Convival Communication: recontextualizing communicative competence. International Journal of Applied Linguistics. Vol. 15, No.2, 119-143

Savignon, S.J. (1998). Communicative Competence: Theory and Classroom Practice. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2nd edition.

Witzany, G. (2007). The Logos of the Bios 2. Bio-Communication. Helsinki: Umweb.

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