Communicative competence

Communicative competence is the ability of a person to behave effectively and appropriately in a given speech community ; This implies respecting a set of rules that includes both those of grammar and the other levels of linguistic description (lexicon, phonetics, semantics) and the rules of language use , related to the socio-historical and cultural context in which communication takes place.

In the words of D. Hymes, communicative competence is related to knowing “when to speak, when not, and what to speak about, with whom, when, where, in what way”; that is, it is about the ability to form statements that are not only grammatically correct but also socially appropriate. It is this author who formulates the first definition of the concept, in the 70s of the 20th century , in his studies of sociolinguistics and ethnography of communicationIn the USA In a well-known article (Hymes, 1971) he questions the concept of linguistic competence developed by generative grammar, since it abstracts from the sociocultural features of the usage situation. In order to develop an adequate theory of the use of language, and to integrate linguistic theory and a theory of communication and culture, he proposes four criteria to describe the forms of communication, whose application to a certain expression must allow establishing nap:

  • it is formally possible (and to what extent it is); that is, if it has been issued following certain rules, related to both the grammar of the language and the culture of the speaking community;
  • it is feasible (and to what extent it is) by virtue of the available means of action; that is, if the normal conditions of a person (in terms of memory, perception, etc.) allow it to be successfully emitted, received, and processed;
  • it is appropriate (and to what extent it is) in relation to the situation in which it is used; that is to say, if it is adapted to the variables that may occur in different communication situations;
  • it occurs in reality (and to what extent it occurs); that is, if an expression that is formally possible, feasible, and appropriate is effectively used by members of the speech community; in fact, according to Hymes, “something may be possible, feasible, appropriate and may never happen.”

Thus, grammatical competence (first of the four criteria) is integrated into a broader competence.

In second language teaching, S. Savignon (1972) used the expression communicative competence to refer to the ability of language learners to communicate with other classmates; Thus, he distinguished this ability, which allows them a significant use of the language, from that which allows them, for example, to repeat the dialogues of the lessons or to answer correctly to a multiple-choice test.

Later, other authors dedicated to the study of the methodology and didactics of second languages ​​have delved into the concept. M. Canale (1983) describes communicative competence as a set of four interrelated competences:

  • The language proficiency
  • The sociolinguistic competence
  • The discursive competence
  • The strategic competition

To these four competences, J. Van Ek (1986) adds sociocultural competence and social competence.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages speaks of communicative language skills, which include linguistic, sociolinguistic  and pragmatic skills , and which, in turn, are integrated into the general skills of the individual, which are: knowledge ( general knowledge of the world, sociocultural knowledge, intercultural awareness); know-how (skills and abilities); knowing how to be (existential competence: related to attitudes, motivations, values, beliefs …); and knowing how to learn.

The model of L. Bachman (1990) is, until now, the last one that has been proposed in the field of second language teaching. It takes many of the concepts from the previous models, but presents in a different way the components of communicative competence, which are organized in a hierarchical structure of different ranges. The most notable difference of this model compared to the others is that it does not consider strategic competence as a component of communicative competence, but rather as a more general capacity of people to develop certain behaviors; in the case of linguistic behavior, strategic competence acts, according to Bachman, at the same level as psychophysiological mechanisms; such mechanisms, together with strategic competition,

In language teaching, the concept of communicative competence has had a very broad and very profound influence, both with regard to the setting of program objectives and to teaching practices in the classroom, as well as in the conception and preparation of exams. The teaching of the first language has also undergone the influence of studies on communicative competence; In the case of Spanish, the works of Lomas, Osoro and Tusón can be consulted.


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