Communicative Competence Definition, Examples, and Glossary

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The term communicative competence refers to both the tacit knowledge of a language and the ability to use it effectively. It's also called communication competence, and it's the key to social acceptance.

The concept of communicative competence (a term coined by linguist Dell Hymes in 1972) grew out of resistance to the concept of linguistic competence introduced by Noam Chomsky. Most scholars now consider linguistic competence to be a part of communicative competence.

Examples and Observations

"Why have so many scholars, from so many fields, studied communicative competence within so many relational, institutional, and cultural contexts? Our hunch is that scholars, as well as the contemporary Western societies in which most live and work, widely accept the following tacit beliefs: (a) within any situation, not all things that can be said and done are equally competent; (b) success in personal and professional relationships depends, in no small part, on communicative competence; and (c) most people display incompetence in at least a few situations, and a smaller number are judged incompetent across many situations."
(Wilson and Sabee)
"By far the most important development in TESOL has been the emphasis on a communicative approach in language teaching (Coste, 1976; Roulet, 1972; Widdowson, 1978). The one thing that everyone is certain about is the necessity to use language for communicative purposes in the classroom. Consequently, the concern for teaching linguistic competence has widened to include communicative competence, the socially appropriate use of language, and the methods reflect this shift from form to function."

Hymes on Competence

"We have then to account for the fact that a normal child acquires knowledge of sentences not only as grammatical, but also as appropriate. He or she acquires competence as to when to speak, when not, and as to what to talk about with whom, when, where, in what manner. In short, a child becomes able to accomplish a repertoire of speech acts, to take part in speech events, and to evaluate their accomplishment by others. This competence, moreover, is integral with attitudes, values, and motivations concerning language, its features and uses, and integral with competence for, and attitudes toward, the interrelation of language with the other code of communicative conduct."(Hymes)

Canale and Swain's Model of Communicative Competence

In "Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing" (Applied Linguistics, 1980), Michael Canale and Merrill Swain identified these four components of communicative competence:

(i) Grammatical competence includes knowledge of phonology, orthography, vocabulary, word formation and sentence formation.
(ii) Sociolinguistic competence includes knowledge of sociocultural rules of use. It is concerned with the learners' ability to handle for example settings, topics and communicative functions in different sociolinguistic contexts. In addition, it deals with the use of appropriate grammatical forms for different communicative functions in different sociolinguistic contexts.
(iii) Discourse competence is related to the learners' mastery of understanding and producing texts in the modes of listening, speaking, reading and writing. It deals with cohesion and coherence in different types of texts.
(iv) Strategic competence refers to compensatory strategies in case of grammatical or sociolinguistic or discourse difficulties, such as the use of reference sources, grammatical and lexical paraphrase, requests for repetition, clarification, slower speech, or problems in addressing strangers when unsure of their social status or in finding the right cohesion devices. It is also concerned with such performance factors as coping with the nuisance of background noise or using gap fillers.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Canale, Michael, and Merrill Swain. “Theoretical Bases Of Communicative Approaches To Second Language Teaching And Testing.” Applied Linguistics, I, no. 1, 1 Mar. 1980, pp. 1-47, doi:10.1093/applin/i.1.1.
  • Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT, 1965.
  • Hymes, Dell H. “Models of the Interaction of Language and Social Life.” Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication, edited by John J. Gumperz and Dell Hymes, Wiley-Blackwell, 1991, pp. 35-71.
  • Hymes, Dell H. “On Communicative Competence.” Sociolinguistics: Selected Readings, edited by John Bernard Pride and Janet Holmes, Penguin, 1985, pp. 269-293.
  • Paulston, Christina Bratt. Linguistics and Communicative Competence: Topics in ESL. Multilingual Matters, 1992.
  • Peterwagner, Reinhold. What Is the Matter with Communicative Competence?: An Analysis to Encourage Teachers of English to Assess the Very Basis of Their Teaching. LIT Verlang, 2005.
  • Rickheit, Gert, and Hans Strohner, editors. Handbook of Communication Competence: Handbooks of Applied Linguistics. De Gruyter, 2010.
  • Wilson, Steven R., and Christina M. Sabee. “Explicating Communicative Competence as a Theoretical Term.” Handbook of Communication and Social Interaction Skills, edited by John O. Greene and Brant Raney Burleson, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003, pp. 3-50.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Communicative Competence Definition, Examples, and Glossary." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 29). Communicative Competence Definition, Examples, and Glossary. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Communicative Competence Definition, Examples, and Glossary." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).