Dell Hymes

28 Mayıs 2009 Perşembe

Second Language Acqusition and 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.

Introduction and Linguistic Aspects of Communicative Competence

Aspects of communicative competence



Communicative competence is a concept introduced by Dell Hymes and discussed and redefined by many authors. Hymes' original idea was that speakers of a language have to have more than grammatical competence in order to be able communicate effectively in a language; they also need to know how language is used by members of a speech community to accomplish their purposes.


The modules in this section identify eight aspects of communicative competence. They are grouped together in two groups of four:

 Linguistic aspects
  • Phonology and orthography
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Discourse (textual)
 Pragmatic aspects
  • Functions
  • Variations
  • Interactional skills
  • Cultural framework
In this module group

Linguistic aspects of communicative competence



The linguistics aspects of communicative competence are those that have to do with achieving an internalized functional knowledge of the elements and structures of the language.

In this module group

What is phonological competence?



Phonological competence is the ability to recognize and produce the distinctive meaningful sounds of a language, including:

  • consonants
  • vowels
  • tone patterns
  • intonation patterns
  • rhythm patterns
  • stress patterns
  • any other suprasegmental features that carry meaning

Related to phonological competence is orthographic competence, or the ability to decipher and write the writing system of a language.


In Korean there are three kinds of velar stops: aspirated, fortis and lenis. It is important to be able to distinguish these sounds, because there are a number of different words that are pronounced the same, except for the difference in these stops. It is also important to be able to pronounce these consonants correctly so that Korean speakers can tell which word the language learner means.

What is grammatical competence?



Grammatical competence is the ability to recognize and produce the distinctive grammatical structures of a language and to use them effectively in communication.


Grammatical competence as defined by Noam Chomsky would include phonological competence.


Learners of French need to learn to understand the different time references of sets of words such as je partais, je parte, je parterai, and to be able to make appropriate time reference when speaking or writing.

What is discourse competence ?



Discourse competence is used to refer to two related, but distinct abilities. Textual discourse competence refers to the ability to understand and construct monologues or written texts of different genres, such as narratives, procedural texts, expository texts, persuasive (hortatory) texts, descriptions and others. These discourse genres have different characteristics, but in each genre there are some elements that help make the text coherent, and other elements which are used to make important points distinctive or prominent.


Learning a language involves learning how to relate these different types of discourse in such a way that hearers or readers can understand what is going on and see what is important. Likewise it involves being able to relate information in a way that is coherent to the readers and hearers.


Many authors use the term discourse to refer to conversational interaction, so that discourse competence could also refer to the ability to participate effectively in conversations. In the Language Learning Bookshelf conversational interaction is considered a part of interactional competence.


Consider the following short discourse in English:


Once upon a time there was an old woman named Mother Hubbard, who had a dearly-loved dog named Bowser. Mother Hubbard was very poor and didn't always have enough food for herself and her pet.


One day Bowser came running up and barked hopefully to show his mistress how hungry he was. Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her poor doggie a bone, because she felt sorry for him. But when she got to the cupboard it was bare, and so poor Bowser went hungry.


This story starts with the phrase Once upon a time, which tells us that it is a fairy tale. The first paragraph goes on to introduce the two characters: Mother Hubbard and Bowser. It also tells us the background information we need to know about Mother Hubbard. Even though this is such a short story we need to keep track of the two participants and the props: the cupboard and the bone. Note the words used to refer to Mother Hubbard: an old woman, herself, his mistress, she and those used to refer to Bowser: a dearly-loved dog, her pet, her poor doggie, him, poor Bowser.


The second paragraph starts with the words One day, which introduce an event we expect to be important. (In fact, it is the only episode in our story!) This episode has three main events:

  • Bowser ran up and barked hopefully
  • Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard
  • The cupboard was bare

There is also some further information in subordinate clauses, which are linked to the main clauses by words that show the relationship between them:

  • to show his mistress how hungry he was tells us the purpose for which Bowser barked.
  • because she felt sorry for him tells us the reason why Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard.
  • to get her poor doggie a bone tells us the purpose of going to the cupboard.
  • and so poor Bowser went hungry tells us the result of the cupboard being bare.

The words But when she got there introduce the climax of the story: She expected the bone to be there, but it wasn't so poor Bowser went hungry.


So even in a short story such as this, we can identify cohesive and prominence elements in an English narrative text. Children learn intuitively as they are learning English, but adult learners may be helped by conscious attention to such elements.

Pragmatic Aspects of Communicative Competence

Pragmatic aspects of communicative competence



The pragmatic aspects of communicative competence are those that have to do with how language is used in communication situations to achieve the speaker's purposes.

In this module group

What is functional competence?



Functional competence refers to the ability to accomplish communication purposes in a language. There are a number of different kinds of purposes for which people commonly use language.


Greeting people is one purpose for which we use language. What we actually say in English could be Good morning, Hi, How ya doin, or Yo, depending on who we are and who we are talking to.

What is sociolinguistic competence?



Sociolinguistic competence is the ability to interpret the social meaning of the choice of linguistic varieties and to use language with the appropriate social meaning for the communication situation.


Sociolinguistics is a very broad discipline and the term sociolinguistic competence could be used much more broadly than it is here, where we have restricted its use to refer to the recognition and use of appropriate varieties of language.


When greeting someone in a very formal situation an American might say, Hello, how are you? or Nice to see you again, but if he were meeting a friend in an informal situation it would be much more appropriate to say Hi, or Hey, whatcha been doing?

What is interactional competence?



Interactional competence involves knowing and using the mostly-unwritten rules for interaction in various communication situations within a given speech community and culture. It includes, among other things, knowing how to initiate and manage conversations and negotiate meaning with other people. It also includes knowing what sorts of body language, eye contact, and proximity to other people are appropriate, and acting accordingly.


A conversation with a checker at the check-out line in a grocery store in the US or England shouldn't be very personal or protracted, as the purpose of the conversation is mainly a business transaction and it would be considered inappropriate to make the people further back in the queue wait while a customer and the checker have a social conversation. Other cultures have different rules of interaction in a market transaction.

What is cultural competence?



Cultural competence is the ability to understand behavior from the standpoint of the members of a culture and and to behave in a way that would be understood by the members of the culture in the intended way. Cultural competence therefore involves understanding all aspects of a culture, but particularly the social structure, the values and beliefs of the people, and the way things are assumed to be done.


It is impossible to speak Korean or Japanese correctly without understanding the social structure of the respective societies, because that structure is reflected in the endings of words and the terms of address and reference that must be used when speaking to or about other people.


What Communicative Language Tests Measure

Communicative language tests are intended to be a measure of how the testees are able to use language in real life situations. In testing productive skills, emphasis is placed on appropriateness rather than on ability to form grammatically correct sentences. In testing receptive skills, emphasis is placed on understanding the communicative intent of the speaker or writer rather than on picking out specific details. And, in fact, the two are often combined in communicative testing, so that the testee must both comprehend and respond in real time. In real life, the different skills are not often used entirely in isolation. Students in a class may listen to a lecture, but they later need to use information from the lecture in a paper. In taking part in a group discussion, they need to use both listening and speaking skills. Even reading a book for pleasure may be followed by recommending it to a friend and telling the friend why you liked it.

The "communicativeness" of a test might be seen as being on a continuum. Few tests are completely communicative; many tests have some element of communicativeness. For example, a test in which testees listen to an utterance on a tape and then choose from among three choices the most appropriate response is more communicative than one in which the testees answer a question about the meaning of the utterance. However, it is less communicative than one in which the testees are face- to-face with the interlocutor (rather than listening to a tape) and are required to produce an appropriate response.

Examples of Communicative Test Tasks


Information gap. An information gap activity is one in which two or more testees work together, though it is possible for a confederate of the examiner rather than a testee to take one of the parts. Each testee is given certain information but also lacks some necessary information. The task requires the testees to ask for and give information. The task should provide a context in which it is logical for the testees to be sharing information.

The following is an example of an information gap activity.

Student A

You are planning to buy a tape recorder. You don't want to spend more than about 80 pounds, but you think that a tape recorder that costs less than 50 pounds is probably not of good quality. You definitely want a tape recorder with auto reverse, and one with a radio built in would be nice. You have investigated three models of tape recorder and your friend has investigated three models. Get the information from him/her and share your information. You should start the conversation and make the final decision, but you must get his/her opinion, too.

(information about three kinds of tape recorders)

Student B

Your friend is planning to buy a tape recorder, and each of you investigated three types of tape recorder. You think it is best to get a small, light tape recorder. Share your information with your friend, and find out about the three tape recorders that your friend investigated. Let him/her begin the conversation and make the final decision, but don't hesitate to express your opinion.

(information about three kinds of tape recorders)

This kind of task would be evaluated using a system of band scales. The band scales would emphasize the testee's ability to give and receive information, express and elicit opinions, etc. If its intention were communicative, it would probably not emphasize pronunciation, grammatical correctness, etc., except to the extent that these might interfere with communication. The examiner should be an observer and not take part in the activity, since it is difficult to both take part in the activity and evaluate it. Also, the activity should be tape recorded, if possible, so that it could be evaluated later and it does not have to be evaluated in real time.

Role Play. In a role play, the testee is given a situation to play out with another person. The testee is given in advance information about what his/her role is, what specific functions he/she needs to carry out, etc. A role play task would be similar to the above information gap activity, except that it would not involve an information gap. Usually the examiner or a confederate takes one part of the role play.

The following is an example of a role play activity.


You missed class yesterday. Go to the teacher's office and apologize for having missed the class. Ask for the handout from the class. Find out what the homework was.


You are a teacher. A student who missed your class yesterday comes to your office. Accept her/his apology, but emphasize the importance of attending classes. You do not have any extra handouts from the class, so suggest that she/he copy one from a friend. Tell her/him what the homework was.

Again, if the intention of this test were to test communicative language, the testee would be assessed on his/her ability to carry out the functions (apologizing, requesting, asking for information, responding to a suggestion, etc.) required by the role.

Testing Reading and Writing

Some tests combine reading and writing in communicative situations. Testees can be given a task in which they are presented with instructions to write a letter, memo, summary, etc., answering certain questions, based on information that they are given.

Letter writing. In many situations, testees might have to write business letters, letters asking for information, etc.

The following is an example of such a task.

Your boss has received a letter from a customer complaining about problems with a coffee maker that he bought six months ago. Your boss has instructed you to check the company policy on returns and repairs and reply to the letter. Read the letter from the customer and the statement of the company policy about returns and repairs below and write a formal business letter to the customer.

(the customer's complaint letter; the company policy)

The letter would be evaluated using a band scale, based on compliance with formal letter writing layout, the content of the letter, inclusion of correct and relevant information, etc.

Summarizing. Testees might be given a long passage--for example, 400 words--and be asked to summarize the main points in less than 100 words. To make this task communicative, the testees should be given realistic reasons for doing such a task. For example, the longer text might be an article that their boss would like to have summarized so that he/she can incorporate the main points into a talk.

The summary would be evaluated, based on the inclusion of the main points of the longer text.

Testing Listening and Writing/Note Taking

Listening and writing may also be tested in combination. In this case, testees are given a listening text and they are instructed to write down certain information from the text. Again, although this is not interactive, it should somehow simulate a situation where information would be written down from a spoken text.

An example of such a test is as follows.

You and two friends would like to see a movie. You call the local multiplex theater. Listen to their recording and fill in the missing information in the chart so that you can discuss it with your friends later.

Theater Number        Movie           Starting Times


  1                 Air Head


  2                                  4:00, 6:00, 8:00


  3                                  4:35, 6:45, 8:55


  4                 Off Track


Communicative language tests are those which make an effort to test language in a way that reflects the way that language is used in real communication. It is, of course, not always possible to make language tests communicative, but it may often be possible to give them communicative elements. This can have beneficial backwash effects. If students are encouraged to study for more communicative tasks, this can only have a positive effect on their language learning.


1.What was Dell Hymes’  main objective when developing “ communicative competence”  ?

2.What are the linguistic aspects of communicative competence related to ?

3.What is orthographic competence?

4.As a prospective teacher, would you prefer to use communicative

competence in your classes? What are the advantages and disadvantages of it?

5.What is the aim of communicative approach to testing?