Communicative competence is a concept set forth by Dell Hymes (1966). The idea behind his concept was that (English) language is not to be learned within a vacuum. In other words, language is used for communication, and as such, it must follow conventions. He divided those conventions into competencies. And they cover a broad range of communication elements: grammatical (or linguistic) competence, discourse competence, strategic competence, and sociolinguistic competence.
In our blog today, we’ll discuss each competency as it relates to speaking, what that means for teachers, and how you can approach them in your ESL classes.
Grammatical or Linguistic Competence
This is more or less the technical aspect of English that includes structure, lexis, and pronunciation. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that linguistic competency is foundational and that our students can improve in this area. Indeed, most students I’ve met realize they need to improve in this area.
Sadly though, some teachers tend to over-emphasize this area to the grief of their learners. That’s because often, students want to be able to use the language in meaningful communication. On the other hand, some learners tend to over-stress this competence to the dismay of their teachers who want to take them beyond proper structure into communication.
However, grammatical competence is not the end all-be all of the English language. Having sufficient mastery of structure, vocabulary, and clarity is great, but if learners don’t know how to deliver these points, the buck stops there.
Discourse competence is basically a mastery of the language that permits learners to communicate in different settings. I like to refer to it as the ability to go beyond one or two-word responses into coherent and cohesive statements.
As many teachers may be familiar with in their conversation classes, some students give very short responses to conversational questions. For example, the teacher asks: What did you do this weekend? And the student answers: Sleep. See friends. Watch a movie.
Agreed, it sounds like some native-speaking teenagers answering their parents, so we can’t get too upset by that. But we’re speaking about a language learning class, not teenager-parent communications. So, back to the short answers …
Readers may agree that one or two-word answers give an impression of shortness (irritability) or a lack of interest. Many of our learners would likely agree that is not the impression they want to give. That also broaches sociolinguistic competence, and we’ll talk about that later. But, when they speak without discourse competence, that maybe what they’re projecting.
So, how do we, as teachers help develop this competence? One way is to take them through real-world dialogues and show them what they can say. We can start with basic introductions for example. Then, work into simple small talk and situational communication as needed. You can even include the register for a specific group of people or jargon for a specific field when needed.
When learners are routinely able to string more than a couple of words or so together into coherent communications in various contexts, they’ll have achieved some form of discourse competence. But it doesn’t stop there, we need to ensure that they have this competence in all areas they are targeting for their use of English.
Strategic competence refers to the speaker’s ability to recover from communication breakdowns. This is one of the more fascinating areas of language teaching in my opinion. So often learners are under the impression they must always give a perfect answer. I’m not sure where they get that impression. But I’m pretty sure they picked it up during the course of their language learning experiences. Perhaps teachers were too demanding, or they were trying to save face.
Nevertheless, there are times when a learner may need to ask someone to repeat something or ask for clarification. They may also need to use gestures to facilitate communication or even change their voice pitch. Whatever the case may be, we all need to do that at some point. The challenge is that many of our learners are not familiar with how to do it. That’s where we as teachers come in.
By teaching our class members that it’s alright to say, “pardon,” for example, we equip them to help themselves understand something. We are helping them develop strategic competence. Or when we teach them to ask someone, “would you mind repeating that—I didn’t quite catch that,” they learn that sometimes people don’t understand each other. We can even teach them how they can end an introduction with something like, “that’s a little bit about me, thanks.” There’s a lot more to strategic competence, but hopefully, you get the idea.
Sociolinguistic competence relates to the learner’s ability to use English that matches the social context he/she is in. For example, in pretty much most English-speaking cultures, it’s not acceptable to address a minister with “hey dude.” That requires an understanding of the target language culture, what things should be talked about and what should not be, what is considered courteous, use of certain words, and even avoiding taboo topics.
If she were to communicate words or ideas outside of what the culture deems appropriate, she may risk offense. Or, in a worst-case scenario, the learner would give a negative impression. As mentioned previously in discourse competence, short answers can indicate indifference by the speaker. That would likely hamper further communication between the learner and a person in that culture.
If the learner wants to spend time in the USA, for example, he’d need to know what polite, acceptable, and politically correct speech are. In my conversation classes, I teach students to do these things. Instead of saying, “what” for example if they didn’t understand something, they learn a more polite way such as, “pardon.” By teaching or modelling to your students what acceptable communication is, you’ll be helping them develop sociolinguistic competence.
There’s so much more we could discuss with this subject. I think we could agree that many teachers tend to focus on grammatical competence, but there is so much more to interactions and communications than proper structure, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
On the other hand, some teachers focus more on discourse competence than others. They don’t see the need for teaching grammar only, for example. And then there are strategic and sociolinguistic competencies as well. As Dell Hymes put forth, learners need to grasp all aspects of communicating in the second language (ESL). It’s the whole ball of wax, not just part of it.
Perhaps in future blogs we can address each competence more specifically, and how teachers can facilitate each one in their lessons in more detail. But, by now, you should see how communicative competence can give you some direction in your English language lessons. This can also help you pinpoint areas that need development.
As teachers, how well do we help develop learner communicative competence? Are our lessons focusing only on one area or another but failing to integrate the others? Or are we preparing our class members for life outside of the classroom? Communicative competence can guide our teaching decisions toward that end. Tell us about your experience.