International Journal of Arts & Sciences,
CD-ROM. ISSN: 1944-6934 :: 09(01):183–188 (2016)
DEVELOPING STUDENTS’ COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE IN
UNIVERSITY ENGLISH LANGUAGE PROGRAMS
Al Ain University of Science and Technology, UAE
Communicative competence is defined as the ability to interact effectively with others. At its most
basic, competence is seen as a combination of language aptitudes an individual has for learning a
foreign language. Such potential contributes to his/her attaining high levels of performance. This paper
considers the following: the nature of communicative competence and some of its models; the
importance of developing communicative competence among students; and the implications of
communicative competence in English language teaching and learning.
Keywords: Linguistics competence, Communicative competence, Models of communicative
competence, English language teaching and learning.
In the last quarter of the past century, as a result of research in the fields of psycholinguistics,
sociolinguistics and socio-semantics, there has been an increasing interest and, consequently
development, in the communicative properties of language use. Most notably in the concept of
communicative competence as distinct from linguistic competence; a notion introduced to the discourse
of linguistic theory by Noam Chomsky (1965). In his much-acclaimed book “Aspects of the Theory of
Syntax”, Chomsky draws a distinction between competence (the speaker-hearer's knowledge of his
language) and performance (the actual use of language in real-life situations). He points out that
“linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous
speech-community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant
conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interests, and errors (random or
characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance”. (p. 4). This dichotomy,
regarded as purely linguistic by many of his contemporaries, has opened the doors to differing views and
triggered wide rejections. As a result, attempts have been made to further broaden the concept of
linguistic competence to include the sociolinguistic aspects of language necessary for the performance of
acts of communication. This paper article attempts to shed light on those differences and beyond.
2. Linguistic Competence vs. Communicative Competence
According to Chomsky, (1965), “linguistic competence is understood as concerned with the tacit
knowledge of language structure”. (p. 19). He observes that “a person who has learned a language has
acquired a system of rules that related sound and meaning in a certain specific way. He has, in other
184 Developing Students’ Communicative Competence ...
words, acquired a certain competence that he puts to use in producing and understanding speech.”
(Quoted by Munby 1978, p. 8) Hymes (1967) defines linguistic competence as “the ability to produce
grammatical sentences or utterances through knowledge of linguistic rules”. Other scholars also gave a
number of definitions of linguistic competence referring to it as mastery of the rules of the language.
Wilkins (1972) states that linguistic competence “consists of the ability to recognize and construct
grammatically correct sentences which are appropriate both to the circumstances of utterance and the
intention of the speaker”. (p. 219). Thus, linguistic competence is the perfect knowledge of the linguistic
features of a language. In regards to this point, Munby (1978) goes further to say that “the perfect
knowledge referred to here is the mastery of the abstract system of rules which a person is able to
understand and produce any and all of the well-formed sentences of his language, in his linguistic
competence.” (p. 7)
What this notion didn't cover, however, was the communicative skills required of a native skills
speaker to be highly performing in particular interaction contexts. It is for this reason that scholars in
applied linguistics have been giving greater attention to the concept of communicative competence.
Hymes (1967) defines communicative competence as the speaker's ability to participate in a society not
only as a speaking member but also as a communicative member. The term communicative competence
has been used by sociolinguists to include both knowing a language (linguistic competence) and knowing
how to use it, i.e. in addition to grammaticality, the notion of competence should include contextual
appropriacy or knowledge of sociolinguistic codes and rules. In Hymes' terms; “there are rules without
which the rules of grammar would be useless” (1972). The difference between linguistic competence and
communicative competence is set forth by Hymes (1972, p. 75). Ma (2009), for example, points out that
effective control of English in appropriate contexts requires much more than grammatical or linguistic
competence. It requires communicative competence which includes not only linguistic competence but
also contextual and sociolinguistic competence (the ability to produce utterances appropriate to a given
situation). This is known to be where the Chomskyan approach of language competence shows
3. Some Models of Communicative Competence
3.1 Hymes Communicative Competence Model
The most comprehensive reaction to Chomsky's concept of language competence is the one initiated by
Hymes (1971) where he opposes the idea that the socio-cultural factors are excluded from the study of
language. In Chomsky's view competence is the speaker-hearer's knowledge of his language operating
within ‘a completely homogeneous speech community' whereas performance is the actual use of language
in concrete situations'. However, the restriction of competence to the notions of a homogeneous
community, perfect knowledge, and independence of socio-cultural factors made Hymes and other
sociolinguists reconsider the Chomskyan conception of competence. They thought of a linguistic theory
that could, in Hymes' words, “deal with a heterogeneous speech community, differential competence, the
constituting role of socio-cultural features”. (Hymes 1972 p. 275) Hymes assumes that Chomsky's notion
of competence itself needs such a theory for its foundations to be secured. He states that “Such a theory of
competence posits ideal objects in abstraction from socio-cultural features that might enter into their
description. [. . .] The theory of performance is the one sector that might have a specific socio-cultural
content; but while equated with a theory of language use, it is essentially concerned with psychological
by-products of the analysis of grammar, not, say, with social interaction.” (Hymes, 1972). Recognizing
that Chomsky's theory of competence was somewhat restricted in its entirety; Hymes suggests a new type
of communicative competence, thus, taking the notion of competence itself into account. For Hymes, the
notion of communicative competence concerns itself with the production of appropriate speech acts in a
social context without ignoring their grammaticality. In addition to grammaticality and acceptability,
Hymes' developed concept of communicative competence bestows a place for psycholinguistics as well as
Abdelghani Remache 185
socio-cultural features. The theory of communicative competence that he suggests identifies four aspects
of knowledge and abilities:
1. Whether (and to what degree) something is formally possible.
2. Whether (and to what degree) something is feasible in virtue of the means of implementation
3. Whether (and to what degree) something is appropriate (adequate, happy, successful) in relation
to a context in which it is used and evaluated.
4. Whether (and to what degree) something is in fact done, actually performed, and what its doing
entails. Hymes (1972 p.281).
Hymes’ contribution to the theory of communication was of paramount importance as it has resulted
in creating new ways of approaching a language not in terms of its syntactic rules but through the notion
of communication as based on real instances of social interaction.
3.2 Halliday's Communicative Competence Model
Another major reaction again Chomsky's notion of competence comes from Halliday (1970) who rejects
the distinction between competence and performance as being of little use in a sociological context. He
points out that “such a dichotomy runs the risk of being either unnecessary or misleading. Unnecessary if
it is just another name for the distinction between what we have been able to describe in the grammar and
what we have not, and misleading in any other interpretation.” (1979) In his socio-semantic approach to
language and language use, Halliday states that the socio-semantic network is a representation of a ‘set of
options or alternatives', in meaning, that are at the disposal of the speaker-listener. This meaning
potential, as Halliday stated, differs entirely from Chomsky's notion of competence simply because
knowing a language does not only mean having knowledge of the formal properties of the language as a
system (Chomsky's competence) but involves as a knowledge of how to use the system to communicate
appropriately in particular social contexts. Thus, Halliday's model of communicative competence is one in
which language is a 'meaning potential' (sets of options, or alternatives, in meaning, that are available to
the speaker-hearer); by extension, it is perceived as ‘knowledge in the head' of the subject.' (Halliday
Halliday's notion of meaning potential draws attention to the socio-semantic basis of linguistic
knowledge and indicates the central and metamorphosing role of the semantic options (available to the
speaker-listener) in translating options in behavior into options in linguistic form. That is to say, this
‘meaning potential' of language relates behavior potential to lexico-grammatical potential (what the
speaker can say). Halliday argues that “the more we are able to relate the options in grammatical systems
to meaning potential in the social contexts and behavioral settings, the more insight we shall gain into the
nature of the language system. Since it is in the service of such contexts and settings that language has
evolved.” This relationship between behavior potential and lexico-grammatical potential could be
specified, by employing Halliday's 'semantic' network which analyzes sentences in terms of the semantic
options: “Semantics is what the speaker can mean. It is the strategy that is available for entering the
language system”. (Halliday 1979, p. 27). In this view, ‘the meaning potential' of ‘language' realizes
‘behaviour potential' (‘can mean' is ‘can do) when it is translated into language. It is ‘in turn realized in
the language system as lexicogrammatical potential' which is what the speaker ‘can say'.
Halliday's set of notions include:
1. The behavior potential: the speaker-hearer has various possibilities for acting whatever the
contexts may be.
2. The linguistic behavior potential: in this case various options are available to the speaker-hearer
from which he/she can choose to speak or write. The action he/she selects at the level of
semantics will determine his/her choice about the other actions. The semantic outcome is
described in this case as a realization of behavior patterns.
186 Developing Students’ Communicative Competence ...
3. The meaning potential: this is represented by a set of choices which provides the speaker-hearer
with the ability to express his/her meaning via the language system operation.
4. The grammatical level: here, both grammar and phonology are at the disposal of the speaker-
hearer. At this level, the speaker-hearer can choose between various strategies of structural
3.3 Munby's Communicative Competence Model
In his reaction to the concept of competence, Munby (1978) came out with three major elements which
believes constitutes the foundation for communicative competence. The first element is that of socio-
cultural orientation. According to Munby, “knowing about the target language, in the sense of knowing
whether and to what extent something in that language is systematically possible, may not be sufficient
for effective communication”. (1978, p. 23). Thus, mastery of the rules of use and language patterns
appropriate to the ‘relevant social contexts' is of paramount importance to the learner's competence. The
‘relevant social contexts', however, could be achieved “through a systematic investigation of the learner's
requirements in terms of, for example, communicative modes and activities, and relationships between
him and his interlocutors”. (Munby 1972:24) Here, it should be worth mentioning that Munby's socio-
cultural element draws heavily on Hymes' (1972) contextual appropriacy.
The second element that has been suggested by Munby is that of the socio-semantic basis of
linguistic knowledge. This element is mainly concerned with the learner's capability to translate options in
behavior into options in linguistic form. This factor matches heavily with Halliday's (1973) ‘meaning
potential’. Halliday (1973) assumes that the process of language production is one in which a social
system determines sets of behavioral options (what speakers can do) which are realized as sets of
semantics options (what speakers can mean), which in turn are realized as sets of grammatical options
(what speakers can say).
Munby's third element is that of discourse level operation where the learner's competence consists of
the ability to use linguistic forms to perform communicative acts and the ability to understand the
communicative functions of sentences and their relationships to other sentences (Munby 1978:26). This
happens at the level of discourse and involves, among other things, knowledge of the theoretical rules of
use (Widdowson (1975).
The problem with the traditional syllabus lies in that they present learners with linguistic forms at the
sentence level only, thus, denying the learners the acquisition of theoretical rules of use at the discourse
level. Munby (1978) pointed out the implications for his model:
1. Selecting communicative units, such as speech functions or rhetorical acts.. takes place at the
level of discourse.
2. Rhetorical rules and contextual meaning… should be taught as appropriate to the required acts
3. A concern with communicative competence indicates the need for redefining the dimensions of
syllabus specification to take account of the communicative value of discourse units.
4. Communicative Competence and it Implications for Teaching and Learning
In relation to language study and language teaching, it is worthy of mention that Chomsky's views of
linguistic competence paved the way for two major theoretical developments; communicative competence
and communicative language teaching. Harmer, who has studied Chomsky's theories and how they
influenced language teaching, asserts that “Language teaching has never adopted a methodology based on
Chomsky's work. But the idea that language is not a set of habits has informed many teaching techniques
and methodologies.” (Harmer, 1991, p. 33). With regard to this last argument, many scholars including
Abdelghani Remache 187
Paulson (1974) and Widdowson (1971) stressed the importance of making a clear-cut distinction between
linguistic competence and communicative competence.
To the question ‘how often are we faced with students learning the English language who “know the
grammar but just can't use the language”?', the answer is unfortunately very often if not always. Students
studying English as a foreign language almost unanimously claim that the six or seven period of studying
the language at school has been a total waste of time. They claim that the English language courses they
have been introduced to do not equip them with the necessary tools that should enable them to take part in
a two-way dialogue in English. They further claim that they often find themselves quite incapable of
expressing their emotions, feelings, their agreement, disagreement, likes, dislikes, etc., in an English
social context. They often identify their difficulty with English as ‘not knowing enough words'. But the
main problem, however, is that they don't know the right words to use in a sentence or utterance in order
to be communicative. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that instead of acquiring ways of using the
language in meaningful situations to produce meaningful acts of communication, they have mastered the
formation rules of the language. In short, they have mastered the one, language usage, without the other,
language use. Or according to Light (1997) communicative competence should achieve four main
purposes: expressing wants and needs, developing social closeness, exchanging information, and
fulfilling social etiquette routines.
From the above statements, it appears that students learning English as a foreign language are still
being exposed to the problem of not being able to actually use the language in normal communicative
settings in both the spoken and the written modes. This is surely a result of the deficiency of the
traditional teaching and learning strategies being employed and which have dominated the teaching of
English as a foreign language in many parts of the non-Anglophone world throughout the years. Allen &
Widdowson (1974) argue that “the difficulties which students encounter arise not so much from a
defective knowledge of the system of English but from unfamiliarity with English use and consequently
their needs must be met by a course which develops a knowledge of how sentences are used in the
performance of different communicative acts.”
The purpose of the classroom teacher, however, does not simply imply arming his/her learners with
tacit knowledge of language structures, but it also entails teaching them ways that enable them to use
language in real life situations. That is, the teacher's interest should not just be in the fact that the learners
get to know the language but that they get to know how to use it. Therefore, the teacher's concern ought to
not be merely with linguistic competence but with what is termed communicative competence or the
ability to use language in real communicative settings. This, of course, does not mean that language usage
is to be forever stored in the dark corner of language teaching. Contrary, it should be made a ‘stock’ from
which use is to be fed because we cannot achieve communicative competence by divorcing use from
usage. Widdowson (1979) put it: “knowing a language is often taken to mean a knowledge of correct
usage but this knowledge is of little utility on its own. It has to be complemented by a knowledge of
appropriate use. A knowledge of use must of necessity include a knowledge of usage but the reverse is
not the case.” (p. 8) Widdowson (1979) further states that there are teachers who have actually realized
that the knowledge of the structures of a language does not necessarily result in their learners acquiring an
effective way to put language into communication or succeeding to create coherent passages of discourse.
Corder (1973) supports this claim by saying that “It is one of the great virtues of modern language
teaching that it adopts a more social approach to language teaching, and is concerned with the problems
of its communicative function in different social situations”. (p. 29). The increasing concern about the
actual use of language in different social settings has led to the investigators of language to realize that
communicative competence goes deeper than linguistic competence. This is true in the sense that
communicative competence does not ignore the socio-cultural aspect of language but combines it with the
knowledge of the formation rules of the language. Communicative competence is a further continuation
of linguistic competence. It includes, in addition to the knowledge of language structures, the ability to
use these in instances of social interaction appropriately in concrete situations. Language has always
functioned and will always continue to function as a means of communication; a means of establishing
and maintaining a contact, expressing oneself (attitudes, ideas, feelings) in different social situations.
188 Developing Students’ Communicative Competence ...
Morrow & Johnson (1981) put it: “The aim of any communication is to get its message across and this is
the true criterion by which any communication should be judged”.
In this paper, several models of communicative competence have been discussed. We have also talked
about the place the notion of communicative competence holds in the successful design of instructional
models and their application to language teaching. Numerous scholars have pushed, through their
theoretical approaches, many of us foreign language teachers toward the goals of developing language
learners’ communicative competence. But helping students achieve such competence in the classroom,
however, is not at all easy as it places high demands both on teachers and learners alike. Any language
teaching should aim to help learners acquire a practical mastery of the target language to be used
communicatively in social contexts. Continuous study and research are essential if we are to fully grasp
the process of adopting language teaching approaches that take communicative competence as their
starting point for any language instruction.
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