Language and communication. Communicative competence and linguistic competence. Disciplines dealing with communication processes.


Scholars agree that in order to communicate effectively and efficiently, human beings need to develop communicative and linguistic competences. All human beings have the innate capacity to use language, but how did humans get that capacity? what is the purpose of human language? how does language work in the communication process? what inferences can be drawn for foreign language teaching?




Theories on the origins of human language

Language can be viewed from different standpoints. First of all, it can be seen as a phenomenon each individual person acquires and develops without effort. All human beings are born with the ability to produce sounds which combine to form words, to make sentences, and to make longer stretches of coherent discourse. Language serves the purpose of expressing emotions, feelings, mental processes, attitudes, etc. The question is how all this came about.

Yule, in ‘The Study of language’ explains various theories on the origins of language and human speech:

– The divine source, with poor results as those children living without access to human speech grow up with no language at all.

– The natural sounds, which suggests that primitive words could have been imitations of the natural sounds,  or of natural cries of emotion.

– The oral-gesture source, which links physical gesture and orally produced sounds. A set of physical gestures is developed as a means of communication, and then a set of oral gestures.

– Physiological adaptation. Humans have physical aspects which are different from other creatures (e.g. human teeth and lips, the mouth and larynx and the brain).

David Crystal, in his ‘Encyclopedia of Language’ mainly focuses on the evidence obtained from palaeontology, which corresponds to the physiological adaptation mentioned by Yule. However, his conclusión is that we can only speculate about the origins of language.




Distinctive features of human language

Language is a social phenomenon, for individuals make use of language to interact with other human beings, expressing feelings and to communicate knowledge and information. So, Yule and other language scholars mention the following unique properties of human language:

1. Displacement: while animals only communicate about the here and now, human beings use language to communicate events which may be far removed in time (now, but also past and future), and place ( here, but also other locations).

2. Arbitrariness: there is no ‘natural’ connection between a linguistic form (signifier) and its meaning (signified). Different communities use different terms to refer to the same object.

3. Productivity: human languages are highly productive or creative, and they develop new terms for new situations or for new objects. Utterances are infinite in human language.

4. Cultural transmission: human beings acquire the language in a culture with other speakers (it is transmitted from one generation to the next). Cultural transmission is essential in the language acquisition process and accounts for the development of writing.

5. Discreteness: the sounds used in a language are meaningfully distinct, that is they are discrete.

6. Duality: language is organised at two levels simultaneously. We can produce individual sounds, but these sounds can combine in different ways to produce different meanings: the sounds [p], [I], [n], can combine to produce different meanings such as ‘pin’ or ‘nip’. It is an economical feature of human language, a few sounds can produce a large number of words.


Language and language systems

Although humans have the innate ability to use language, we do not all use a “universal common language” but rather different communities use different languages, depending mainly on geographical location and historial developments, but also on age, sex, social class, personality, etc.

In order to bring some clarity to the many senses of the word “language” Saussure introduces a three-fold set of terms: Langage (language) as the faculty of speech present in all normal human beings due to heredity. This faculty is composed by two aspects: Langue (the language system) and parole (the act of speaking).

All language systems have certain levels of linguistic organisation, which are shared by all forms of language. The linguistic organisation of language can be viewed:

– At a very basic level of form and meaning.

– As being made up of pronunciation, grammar and meaning.

– As having three primary levels: sounds, grammar and context (extra-linguistic situation).

– As having structure and a particular usage.

– As having an internal structure and varied uses (functions).


Language as the main means of communication

S.P. Corder says that Communication can be intentional or non-intentional, and linguistic or non-linguistic. We are concerned with linguistic and intentional communication, either orally or written.



Many scholars from different fields say that in order to communicate, the addresser or sender or originator of the message must have at least one addressee or receiver or person to whom the message is addressed and a communicative intention or message, which will be the topic or content in the message.

In order to carry through that communicative intention, the addresser makes use of a code, which is the specific language or dialect used to convey the message, and a channel or medium through which the message is conveyed (voice, paper…).

For the communicative intention to be fulfilled, the addresser takes into account the setting or social or physical context where the message is conveyed and chooses a message form realised through the particular grammatical and lexical choices of the message.



To say something we make use of the sounds, words and sentences of a specific language. However, this is not enough for the addressee to understand or “decode” the code which transmits the message or “communicative intention he/she must share with the addresser what is known as “general knowledge of the world” and “knowledge of the language”.

Speech act theory (J.Austin) makes use of different terms to refer to the different layers of intention and interpretation that the words spoken -or written- have in most circumstances of everyday life:

– The formal, literal meaning of the words in the locution.

– The act which is performed by saying the locution is the illocution (an order, a promise, some information…).

– The overall aim of the discourse is the perlocution (to tell somebody what to do, to assure somebody of something, to be cheeky…).



Grice established in 1975 the Cooperative Principle, according to which, the sender of the message is assumed to:

1- be true.

2- be brief.

3- be relevant.

4- be clear.

Under this assumption, combined with a shared knowledge of the world, the receiver can understand the message, and also understand hyperboles, metaphors, irony, sarcasm, etc, and the shared knowledge of the language will allow the receiver to understand puns, jargon, double speak, slang, etc. It happens even when there is a violation or flouting (as Grice calls it) of one of this principles.

This “shared knowledge” must include on the part of both the sender and the receiver a knowledge of the rules governing the politeness principle, the use of formulaic expressions for a given contextual situation. Some examples of these maxims are: don’t impose, and give options and make the receiver feel good. According to Brown and Levinson, the politeness is common to all cultures, but the practical use of that principle will vary according to cultures.

Finally, inferring the function of what is said by considering its form and context is essential for successful communication. To do this, we need knowledge of the physical and social world and make assumptions about the knowledge the people we are interacting with have.



There are different levels of communication:

1. The addresser may address himself or herself, reflecting on their thoughts, feelings,etc. This is intrapersonal communication.

2. The addresser may address another person, the addressee, who usually exchange roles in turns. This is interpesonal communication.

3. The addresser may address a small or large group, and it is called group communication.

4. The addresser may address members of the business, scientific, etc. world. This is known as organisational communication.

5. The addresser may make use of special media directed to a large audience. This is known as public or mass communication.

6. The addresser may address an audience made up of participants from different cultures. This is known as international communication.


Human beings make use of two basic channels in the communication process:

Speech is mainly used for conversation purposes, in which at least two participants interact, and that conversation involves turn-taking. Other important factors are reciprocity, word order and schemata.

Writing involves producing longer stretches of language. The reader (decoder) must master certain rules of knowledge of form, interpretation of meaning, cohesive devices and other pragmatic elements.


In conclusion, for the communicative process to be successful, the code or language used must include both formal links within the language (which help to connect sentences) and contextual links outside the language (which add extra meaning). Furthermore, for a communicative intention to be fulfilled we employ language rules which operate between the sentences as well as within the sentence; but we also employ knowledge of the world, of the speaker, of the social convention to make sense of what we hear or read.


3. Communicative competence and linguistic competence

Competence is one of the most controversial terms in the field of general and applied linguistics. Chomsky in his “Aspects of the Theory of Syntax” (1965) made a distinction between competence (the speaker’s knowledge of a language) and performance (the actual use of language in real situations). They are based on Saussure’s langue and parole.



Soon after Chomsky proposed and defined the concepts of competence and performance, other linguists found alternative theories. Hyme defined communicative competence not only as an inherent grammatical competence but also as the ability to use grammatical competence in a variety of communication situations. Hyme stated that, in order to speak a language correctly, one does not only need to learn its vocabulary and grammar, but also the context in which words are used (sociolinguistic perspective).


Canale and Swain (1980) understood communicative competence as a synthesis of an underlying system of knowledge and skill needed for communication. According to them, knowledge includes knowledge of underlying grammatical principles, knowledge of how to use language in a social context and knowledge of how to combine utterances and functions respecting the discourse principles.


Savignon (1983) put a greater emphasis on the aspect of ability. She described communicative competence as “the ability to function in a truly communicative setting – in a dynamic exchange in which linguistic competence must adapt itself to the total informational input”.


In the CEFR (2001), communicative competence is conceived in terms of knowledge and skills. It includes 3 basic components – language competence, sociolinguistic competence and pragmatic competence. The pragmatic competence involves two subcomponents: discourse competence and functional competence.

Strategic competence is mentioned in the part the CEFR dedicated to a discussion of communicative language use. The stress is put on the use of communication strategies to overcome the lack in a particular area of language knowledge and on the use of all types of communication strategies.



In Canale and Swain (1980-81), grammatical competence is mainly defined in terms of Chomsky’s linguistic competence. According to them, grammatical competence is concerned with mastery of the linguistic code (verbal or non-verbal) which includes vocabulary knowledge as well as knowledge of morphological, syntantic, semantic, phonetic and ortographic rules. This competence enables the speaker to use knowledge and skills needed for understanding and expressing the literal meaning of utterances.


For the CEFR the subcomponents of language competence are:

a) Lexical: the ability to recognize and use words in the way that native speakers use them.

b) Grammatical: the ability to use the grammatical resources, morphology and syntax.

c) Semantic: the ability to see how meaning is organized.

d) Phonological: the ability to percieve and produce the sounds, phonetic features, etc.



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