Route to increase of communicative competence in learning English as a second language

--Dr. Mohammed Mijanur Rahma

The middle of the 20th century had largely focused on “Communicative teaching of English as a foreign language for the ultimate goal of communication with other speakers. Such a focus has centered on speaking and listening skills, on writing for specific communicative purposes and on authentic reading text.

The term communicative was coined by Dell Hymes (1967-72) a sociolinguist who was convinced that Chomsky’s (1965) notion of competence was too limited. Chomsky’s rule governed creativity that so aptly describes a mushrooming grammar at the age 3 or 4, did not according to Hymes, account sufficiently for the social and functional rules of language.

Communicative competence, then, is that aspect of our competence that enables us to convey an internal message and to negotiate meaning interpersonally within specific contexts. Savingnon (1983-89) notes that “communicative competence is relative, not absolute, and depends on the cooperation of all the participants involved.” It is not so much an intrapersonal on structure as we saw in Chomsky’s early writings but rather a dynamic, interpersonal construct that can only be examined by means of the overt performance of two or more individuals in the process of negotiating meaning. In 1970, research on communicative competence distinguished between linguistic and communicative competence (Hymes 1967, Paulston 1974) to highlight the difference between ‘knowledge’ about language forms and ‘knowledge’ that enables a person to communicate functionally and interactively. In similar vein, James Cummins (1979-80) proposed a distinction between Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) and Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS). CALP is that dimension of proficiency in which the learners manipulate or reflect upon the surface features of language outside the immediate interpersonal context. It is what learners often use in classroom exercises and test that focus on form. BICS, on the other hand, is the communicative capacity that all children acquire in order to be able to function in daily interpersonal exchanges. Cummins (1981) later modified his notion of CALP and BICS in the form of context-reduced and context-embedded communication where the former resembles CALP and the later BICS but the added dimension of considering the context in which language is used. A good share of classroom, school-oriented language is context-reduced, while face to face communication with people is context-embedded. By referring to the context of our use of language, then, the distinction becomes more feasible to operationalize.

Seminal work on defining communicative competence was carried out by Michel Canale and Merrill Swain (1980), now the reference point for virtually all discussions of communicative competence vis-à-vis second language teaching. In Canale and Swain (1980), and later in Canale’s (1983) definition, four different components or subcategories, make up the construct of communicative competence. These are (i) Grammatical competence (ii) Discourse competence (iii) Sociolinguistic competence and (iv) Strategic competence. The first two subcategories reflect the use of the linguistic system itself.

Grammatical Competence

Grammatical competence is that aspect of communicative competence that encompasses “knowledge of lexical items and of rules of morphology, syntax, sentence – grammar semantics, and phonology”-(Canale and Swain 1980:29). It is the competence that we associate with mastering the linguistic code of a language, the ‘linguistic’ competence.

Discourse Competence

The second subcategory is discourse competence, the complement of grammatical competence in many ways. It is the ability we have to connect sentences in stretches of discourse and to form a meaningful whole out of a series of utterances. Discourse means everything from simple spoken conversation to lengthy written texts (articles, books and the like). While grammatical competence focuses on sentence level grammar, discourse competence is concerned with intersentential relationships. The last two subcategories define the more functional aspects of communication.

Sociolinguistic Competence

Sociolinguistic competence is the knowledge of the sociocultural rules of language and of discourse. This type of competence “requires an understanding of the social context in which language is used: the roles of the participants, the information they share and the function of the interaction. Only in a full context of this kind can judgments be made on the appropriateness of a particular utterances” –(Savignon 1983:37)

Strategic Competence

The fourth subcategory is strategic competence, a construct that is exceedingly complex. Canale and Swain (1980:30) described strategic competence as “the verbal and non-verbal communication strategies that may be called into action to compensate for breakdowns in communication due to performance variables or due to insufficient competence.” Savignon (1983:40) paraphrases this as “the strategies that one uses to compensate for imperfect knowledge of rules- or limiting factors in their application such as fatigue, distraction, and inattention.” In short, it is the competence underlying our ability to make repairs, to cope with imperfect knowledge, and to sustain communication through “paraphrases, circumlocution, repetition, hesitation, avoidance, and guessing, as well as shifts in register and style (Savignon 1983:40-41)


The importance of pragmatics in recent theories of communicative competence must not be underestimated, as Margie Berns (1990) and others have pointed out. Pragmatic constraints on language production and interpretation may be loosely thought of as the effect on context on strings of linguistic events. The following conversation may be taken into consideration.

[Phone rings, a child picks up the phone.]

Stefanie: Hallo.

Voice: Hi, Stef, is your Mom there?

S: Just a minute.[cups the phone, and yells]Mom! Phone!

Mom: [From upstairs] I’m in the tub!

S: [Returning to the phone] she can’t talk now. Wanna leave a message?

V: Oh, [pause] I’ll call back later. Bye.

Pragmatic consideration allowed all three participants to interpret what would otherwise be ambiguous sentences. “Is your Mom there?” is not, in a telephone context, a question that requires a Yes or No answers. Stefanie’s “Just a minute” confirmed to the caller that her mother was indeed home, and in so saying let the caller know that she would either (a) check to see if she home, and / or (b) get her to come to the phone. Then,  Stefanie’s “Mom! Phone!” was easily interpreted by her mother as “someone is on the telephone who wants to talk.” Mom’s response, otherwise a rather worthless bit of information, in fact informed Stefanie that she couldn’t come to the phone, which was then conveyed to the caller. The caller didn’t explicitly respond ‘No’ to Stefanie’s offer to take a message, but implicitly did so with “I’ll call back later.”

Second language acquisition becomes an exceedingly difficult task when these sociopragmatic or pragmalinguistic constraints are brought to bear. Holmes and Brown (1987), Harlow (1990), and Kitao (1990) have demonstrated the difficulty of teaching such conventions because of subtle cross-cultural contrasts, variation in politeness and formality are particularly touchy:

American: What an unusual necklace! It’s beautiful.

Samoan Recipient: Please take it.

[Holmes and Brown 1987:526]

American: Would you like to read?

Russian student: No, I would not.

[Harlow 1990:328]

In both cases the non-native English speakers misunderstood the illocutionary force (intended meaning) of the utterance within the contexts. Learning the organizational rules of a second language are almost simple when compared to the complexity of catching on to a seemingly never ending list of pragmatic constraints.

Language Functions

Pragmatic conventions of language are sometimes difficult to learn because of the disparity between language forms and functions. The acquisition of vocabulary, grammar rules, and other organizational competencies results in nothing if the learners cannot use those forms for the functional purpose of transmitting and receiving thoughts, ideas and feelings between speaker and listener or writer and reader. While forms are the outward manifestation of language, functions are the realizations of those forms.

Forms of language generally serve specific functions. “How much does that cost?” is usually a form functioning as a question, and “he bought a car” functions as a statement. But linguistic forms are not always unambiguous in their function. “I can’t find my umbrella,” uttered by a frustrated adult who is late for work on a rainy day may be a frantic request for all in the household to join in a search. A child who says “I want some ice-cream” is rarely stating a simple fact or observation but requesting ice cream in her own intimate register. A sign on the street that says, “One way” functions to guide traffic in only one direction.

Communication may be regarded as a combination of acts, a series of elements with purpose and intent. Communication is not merely an event, something that happens, it is functional, purposive, and designed to bring about some effect – some change, however subtle or unobservable – on the environment of the hearers and speakers. Communication is a series of communicative acts or speech acts, to use John Austin’s (1962) terms which are used systematically to accomplish particular purposes. Austin stressed the importance of consequences, the perlocutionary force, of linguistic communication. Researchers have since been led to examine communication in terms of the effect that utterances achieve. That effect has implications for both the production and comprehension of an utterance; both modes of performance serve to bring the communicative act to its ultimate purpose. Second language learners need to understand the purpose of communication, redeveloping an awareness of what the purpose of a communicative act is and how to achieve that purpose through linguistic forms.

The functional  approach to describing language is one that has its roots in the traditions of British linguist J.R. Firth who viewed language as interactive and interpersonal “a way of behaving and making others behave” (quoted by Berns 1984 a:5). Since then the term function has been variously interpreted. Michael Halliday (1973), who provided one of the best expositions of language functions, used the term to mean the purposive nature of communication, and outlined seven different functions of language.

(i) The Instrumental Function: The instrumental function serves to manipulate the environment, to cause certain event to happen. Sentences like “This court finds you guilty,” “On your mark, get set, go!” or “don’t touch the stove” have an instrumental function; they are communicative acts that bring about a particular condition.

(ii) The Regulatory Function: The regulatory function of language is the control of events. While such control is some times difficult to distinguish from the instrumental function, regulatory functions of language are not so much the ‘unleashing” of certain power as the maintenance of control. “I pronounce you guilty and sentence you to three years in prison” serves an instrumental function, but the sentence “Upon good behaviour, you will be eligible for parole in ten months” serves more of a regulatory function. The regulation of encounters among people –approval, disapproval, behaviour control, setting laws and rules, are regulatory features of language.

(iii) The Representational Function: The Representational Function is the use of language to make statements, convey facts and knowledge, explain or report –that is to “represent” reality as one sees it. “The Sun is hot,” “The President gave a speech last night,” or even, “The world is flat,” all serves representational function though the last representation may be highly disputed.

(iv) The Interactional Function: The interactional function of language serves to ensure social maintenance. “Phatic communion,” Malinowski’s term referring to the communicative contact between and among human beings that simply allows them to establish social contact and to keep channels of communication open, is part of the interactional function of language. Successful interactional communication requires knowledge of slang, jargons, jokes, folklore, cultural mores, politeness and formality expectations and other keys to social exchange.

(v) The Personal Function: The personal function allows a speaker to express feelings, emotions, personality, “gut-level” reactions. A person’s individuality is usually characterized by his or her use of the personal function of communication. In the personal nature of language, cognition, affect, and culture all interact in ways that have not yet been explored.

(vi) The Heuristic Function: The heuristic function involves language used to acquire knowledge to learn about the environment. Heuristic functions are often conveyed in the form of questions that will lead to answers. Children typically make good use of the heuristic function in their incessant “why” questions about the world around them. Inquiry is a heuristic method of eliciting representations of reality from others.

(vii) The Imaginative Function: The imaginative function serves to create imaginary systems or ideas. Telling fairy tales, jokes, or writing a novel are all uses of the imaginative function. Using language for sheer pleasure of using language – as in poetry, tongue twisters, puns are also instances of imaginative functions. Through the imaginative dimensions of language we are free to go beyond the real world to soar the heights of the beauty of language itself, and through that language to create impossible dreams if we so desire.

These seven different functions of language are neither discrete nor mutually exclusive. A single sentence or conversation might incorporate many different functions simultaneously. Yet, it is the understanding of how to use linguistic form to achieve these functions of language that comprises the CRUX of second language learning. A learner may acquire correct word order, syntax, and lexical items but not understand how to achieve a desired and intended function through careful selection of words, structure, intonation, nonverbal signals, and astute perfection of the context of a particular stretch of discourse.

Halliday’s seven functions of language tend to mask the almost infinite variety and complexity of functions that we accomplish through language. Van EK and Alexander’s (1975) taxonomy lists almost 70 different functions to be taught in English curricula. Some of these functions are listed below’

(1) Greeting, parting, inviting, accepting

(2)        Complimenting, congratulating, flattering, seducing, charming, bragging

(3)        Interrupting

(4)        Requesting

(5)        Evading, lying, shifting blame, changing the subject

(6)        Criticizing, reprimanding, ridiculing, insulting, threatening, warning

(7)        Complaining

(8)        Accusing, denying

(9)        Agreeing, disagreeing, arguing

(10)      Persuading, insisting, suggesting, reminding, asserting, advising

(11)      Reporting evaluating, commenting

(12)      Commanding, ordering, demanding

(13)      Questioning, probing

(14)      Sympathizing

(15)      Apologizing, making excuses

All of these fall into one or more of Halliday’s seven functions, and all of them are common everyday acts whose performance requires knowledge of language. Subtle differences between functions must be learned. The appropriate contexts of various speech acts must be discerned. The forms of language used to accomplish the functions must become part of the total linguistic repertoire of the second language learner.

If learners are attempting to acquire written as well as spoken competence in the language, they must also discern differences in forms and functions between spoken and written discourse. Such differences are both significant and salient. However, we are centering in this chapter, particularly in the next section, on spoken discourse for several reasons. First, it is the most common goal of foreign language classes. Second, the teaching of writing – beyond perfunctory levels of written discourse – is a highly technical task that varies greatly depending upon the goal of written discourse and upon the particular language that is in question. The study of written discourse, or stylistics, is best undertaken with a specific language in focus. Third, many of the general principles of discourse analysis apply, as we have already seen, to both spoken and written modes of performance

Discourse Analysis

The analysis of the functions of language can be referred to as discourse analysis to capture the notion that language is more than a sentence level phenomenon. A single sentence can seldom be fully analyzed without considering its contexts. We use language in stretches of discourse. We string many sentences together in interrelated, cohesive units. In speaking a language our discourse is marked by exchanges with another person or several persons in which a few sentences spoken by one participant are followed and built upon by sentences spoken by another. Both the production and the comprehension of language are a factor of our ability to perceive and process stretches of discourse, to formulate representations of meaning from not just a single sentence but referents in both previous sentences and following sentences. In fact a single sentence some time contains certain presuppositions or entailments that are not overtly manifested in surrounding surface structure but that are clear from the total context and the understanding of one’s cognitive and linguistic environment. In written language, the same intersentential discourse relations hold true as the writer builds a network of ideas or feelings and the reader interprets them.

Without the intersentential relationships of discourse it would be difficult to communicate unambiguously with one another. Through discourse we greet, request, agree, persuade, question, command, criticize and much more. The sentence “I didn’t like that casserole” could be agreement, disagreement, criticism, argument, complaint, apology, or simply comment if we only considered sentence level surface structure. The surface structure of a sentence in the pragmatic context of total discourse, in conjunction with its prosodic features (stress, intonation, and other phonological nuances) and is nonverbal features (gestures, eye contact, body language), determine the actual interpretation of that single sentence. A second language learner not familiar with contextual discourse constraints of English might utter such a sentence or sentences like it with perfect pronunciation and perfect grammar, but fail to achieve the communicative purpose of, say, apologizing to a dinner host or hostess, and instead appear to be impolitely critical or complaining.

For several decades it has been noticed , linguistic research focused on linguistic forms and on descriptions of the structure of language that were basically at the sentence level. In the recent years the emphasis on communicative competence has shifted the focus to the discourse level. Second language research has followed the same trend. We now realize that the formal approaches that emphasize the speech product of the learner overlook important functions of language. Wagner –Gough (1975), for example noted that acquisition by a learner of the –ing morpheme of the present progressive tense does not necessarily mean acquisition of varying functions of the morpheme: to indicate present action, action about to occur immediately, future action, or repeated actions. Formal approaches have also ended to shape our conception of the whole process of second language learning. Evelyn Hatch (1978a:404) spoke of the dangers. “In second language learning the basic assumption has been that the one first learns how to manipulate structures, that one gradually builds up a repertoire of structures and then, somehow learns how to put the structures to use in discourse. We would like to consider the possibility that just the reverse happens. One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed.”

One of the most salient and significant modes of discourse is conversation. Conversations are excellent examples of the interactive and interpersonal nature of communication. “Conversations are cooperative ventures” (Hatch and Long 1980:4). What are the rules that govern our conversatoions? How do we get some one’s attention? How do we initiate topics? Terminate topics? Avoid topics? How does a person interrupt, correct, or seek clarification? These questions form an area of linguistic competence that every adult native speaker of a language possesses, yet few foreign language curricula traditionally deal with these important aspects of communicative competence. Once again our consideration of conversation rules will be general, since specific languages differ.


Very early in life, children learn the first and essential rule of conversation: attention getting. If linguistic production is wanted to be functional and accomplished its intended purpose, attention of course must be given to the hearer or audience. The attention getting conventions within each language – both verbal and non-verbal – need to be carefully assimilated by learners. Without knowledge and use of such conventions second language learners may be reluctant to participate in a conversation because of their own inhibitions, or they may become obnoxious in securing attention in ways that “turn off” their hearer to the topic they wish to discuss.

Once speakers have secured the hearer’s attention, their task becomes one of topic nomination. There are few explicit rules for accomplishing topic nomination in a language. Usually a person will simply embark on an issue by making a statement or a question that leads to a particular topic.H.P. Grice (1971) noted that certain conversational “maxims” enable the speaker to nominate and maintain a topic of conversation: (1) Quantity: To say only as much as is necessary for understanding the communication; (2) Quality: To say only what is true; (3) Relevance: To say only what is relevant; (4) Manner: To be clear. Robin Lakoff (1976) incorporated Grice’s maxims into what she defined as rules of communicative competence.

Once a topic is nominated, participants in a conversation then embark on topic development, using conversations of turn –taking to accomplish various functions of language. Allwright (1980) showed how students of English as a second language failed to use appropriate turn – taking signals in their interactions with each other and with the teacher. Turn – taking is another of those culturally oriented sets of rules that require finely turned perceptions in order to communicate effectively. Aside from turn –taking itself, topic development, or maintenance of a conversation, involves clarification, shifting, avoidance, and interruption. Topic clarification manifests itself in various forms of heuristic functions. In the case of conversations between second language learners and native speakers, topic clarification often involves seeking or giving repair (correction) of linguistic forms that contain errors. According to Schwartz (1980), repair is part of the process of negotiation that is so important in communication; her study provided many examples of both ‘self-initiated” and “other-initiated” repair. Topic shifting and avoidance may be affected through both verbal and nonverbal signals. Interruptions are a typical feature of all conversations. Language users learn how to interrupt politely – a form of attention getting. Children typically have to be “taught” how and when to interrupt.

Topic termination is an art that even native speakers of a language have difficulty in mastering at times. We commonly experience situations in which a conversation has ensued for some time and neither participant seems to know how to terminate it. Usually in American English, conversations are terminated by various interact ional functions – a glance at a watch, a nicety, or a “Well, I have to be going now.” Each language has verbal and nonverbal signals for such termination. It is important for teachers to be acutely aware of the rules of conversation in the second language and to aid learners both to perceive those rules and follow them in their own conversations.

Conversation rules are one major category of discourse analysis (Hatch Long 1980), but also of great interest in second language learning is the acquisition of the discoursal conventions for accomplishing certain functions. Second language researchers have studied such varied functions as apologizing (Olshtain and Cohen 19830), complimenting (Wolfson 1981), disapproving (D’Amico – Reisner 19830), inviting (Wolfson, D’Amico-Reisner, and Huber 1983), and even “how to tell when some one is saying “no” (Rubin 1976). There is no end to the possibility for reach on such topics. The applications to teaching are equally numerous, apparent in a perusal of the many foreign language textbooks now aimed at focusing on functional aspects of language.

Of further interest to second language researchers is the process of reading and writing. The last few decades have seen a mushrooming of work on second language reading strategies. Techniques in the teaching of reading skills have gone far beyond the traditional passage, comprehension questions, and vocabulary exercises. “Text attack skills” now include sophisticated techniques for recognizing and interpreting cohesive devices (for example, reference and ellipsis), discourse markers (then, moreover, therefore), rhetorical organization, and other textual discourse features (Nuttal 1982). “Cohesion” and “Coherence” are common terms that need to be considered in teaching reading (Carrell 1982, 1986). Likewise the analysis of writing skills has progressed to recognition of the full range of pragmatic and organizational competence that is necessary to write effectively in a second language.

Discourse analysis, then is a multifaceted and exceedingly important consideration in the teaching of a second language. No longer can an adequate theory of second language acquisition be constructed without accounting for the stretches of language that characterize communicative acts.

Nonverbal Communication

We communicate so much information nonverbally in communications that often the verbal aspect of the conversation is negligible. This is particularly true for interactive language functions in which social contact is of key importance. People convey information with body language, gestures, eye contact, physical distance and other nonverbal messages. Language becomes distinctly human through its nonverbal dimension, or what Edward Hall (1969) called the “silent language”.

Gesture and Body Language: Every culture and language uses “body language” or kinesics, in unique but clearly interpretable ways. “There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture,” wrote Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tate. All cultures throughout the history of human kind have relied on kinesics for conveying important messages. Books like Edward Hall’s The Silent Language (1959), The Hidden Dimension (1966), and Julius Fast’s Body Language (1970) were just the first of a long string of self-help manuals offering lighthearted but provocative insights on the use of kinesics in North American culture. Today, virtually every book on communication explains how people communicate – and miscommunicate – when they fold arms, cross legs, stand, walk, move eyes and mouth, and so on.


But as universal as kinesics communication is, there is tremendous variation cross-culturally and cross-linguistically in the specific interpretations of gestures. Human beings all move their heads, blink their eyes, move their arms and hands, but the significance these movements varies from society to society. If we consider the following categories we would see how they express in American culture: (i) Agreement, “yes” (ii) “No!” (iii) “Come here” (iv) Disinterest, “I don’t know” (v) Flirting signals, sexual signals, (vi) Insults, obscene gestures.

There are conventionalized gestural signals to convey these semantic categories. Are those signals the same in another language and culture? Sometimes they are not. And sometimes a gesture that is appropriate in one culture is obscene or insulting in another. Nodding the head for example means “yes” among most European language speakers. But in the Eskimo gestural system, head nodding means “no” and head shaking means “yes”. Among the Ainu of Japan, “yes” is expressed by bringing the arms to the chest and waving them. The pygmy Negritos of interior Malaya indicate “yes” by thrusting the heads sharply forward, but people from the Punjab of India throw their heads sharply backward. The Ceylonese curve their chins gracefully downward in an arc to the left shoulder, whereas Bengalis rock their heads rapidly from one shoulder to the other.

Eye Contact:

Is eye contact appropriate between two participants in a conversation? When is it permissible not to maintain eye contact? What does eye contact or the absence thereof signal? Cultures differ widely in this particular visual modality of nonverbable communication. In American culture it is permissible, for example, for two participants of unequal status to maintained prolonged eye contact. In fact an American might interpret lack of eye contact as discourteous lack of attention, while in Japanese culture eye contact might be considered rude. Intercultural interference in this nonverbal category can lead to misunderstanding.

Not only is eye contact itself an important category, but the gestures, as it were, of the eyes are in some instances keys to communication. Eyes can signal interest, boredom, empathy, hostility, attraction, understanding, misunderstanding, and other messages. The nonverbal language of each culture has different ways of signaling such messages. An important aspect of unfettered and unambiguous conversation in a second language is the acquisition of conventions for conveying messages by means of eye signals.


Physical proximity is also a meaningful communicative category. Cultures vary widely in acceptable distances for conversation. Edward Hall (1966) calculated acceptable distances for public, social –consultative, personal, and intimate discourse. He noted, for example, that Americans feel that a certain personal space “bubble” has been violated if a stranger stands closer than 20 to 24 inches away unless there is restricted space, such as in a subway or an elevator. However, a typical member of a Latin American culture would feel that such a physical distance would be too great.

The interesting thing is that neither party is specifically aware of what is wrong when the distant is not right. They merely have vague feelings of discomfort or anxiety. As the Latin American approaches the North American backs away; both parties take offense without knowing why. When a North American, having had the problem pointed out to him, permits the Latin American to get close enough, he will immediately notice that the latter seems much more at ease. (Hall 1974:76-77)

Sometimes objects –desks, counters, other furniture serve to maintain physical distances. Such objects tend to establish both the overall register and relationship of participants. Thus a counter between two people maintains a consultative mood. Similarly, the presence of a desk or a typewriter will set the tone of a conversation. Again, however, different cultures interpret different messages in such objects. In some cultures, objects might enhance a communicative act, but in other cases they impede the communicative process.

Artifacts: The nonverbal messages of clothing and ornamentation are also important aspects of communication. Clothes often signal a person’s sense of self-esteem, socioeconomic class, and general character. Jewelry also conveys certain messages. In a multicultural conversation group such artifacts, along with other nonverbal signals, can be a significant factor in lifting barriers, identifying certain personality characteristics, and setting a general mood.

Kinesthetic Dimensions: Touching, sometimes referred to as kinesthetics, is another culturally loaded aspect of nonverbal communication. How we touch others and where we