WRITER charles roberts


Communicative Competence

Communication takes a lot of work.


Thought I got it right but you didn’t get it!









The concept of “communicative competence,” its importance in society and effect on communications, must be learned and refined within a well-developed model. Firstly we will account for what is considered an adequate theoretical framework for the understanding of communicative competence. The nature of communication must be defined, and then the consideration of communicative competence versus actual communication can be evaluated. A following section addresses the analysis of the different components of communicative competence. Finally, pedagogical considerations are presented to analyze how this model is learned, utilized and integrated in a communicative approach to convey culturally relevant themes and situations.






The term communicative competence in historical perspective


During the past twenty-five years, communicative language teaching has been the dominant approach for learning most forms of communication. We define competence as a speaker’s intuitive knowledge of the rules of language and performance as the actual message produced by applying those rules not only in terms of grammatical competence, but also in terms of the knowledge of the appropriateness of the message to the context of communication.


The nature of communication

        Communication is understood as the exchange and negotiation of information between at least two individuals through the use of verbal and non-verbal symbols, oral and written.

The construct “communicative competence” presupposes a model of communication due to the fact that it is a concept basic to understanding social interaction. In relating, information is never permanently worked out nor fixed but it is constantly changing and qualified by such factors as further information, context of communication, choice of language forms, and non-verbal behaviour. In this sense, communication involves the continuous evaluation and negotiation of meaning on the part of the participants. Finally, it is assumed that authentic communication involves a “reduction of uncertainty” on behalf of the participants.

The nature of this communication process is understood to have general characteristics:

1. a form of social interaction

2. involves unpredictability and creativity.

3. takes place in discourse and sociocultural context.

4. usually carried out under limiting psychological and other conditions such as memory constraints, fatigue and distractions.

5. always has a purpose (to meet human needs, to persuade, etc)

6. involves authentic, as opposed to edited and contrived language

7. is judged as successful or not on the basis of actual outcome.


Communicative competence and actual communication

Communicative competence is understood as the underlying system of knowledge and skill required for communication (eg. knowledge of vocabulary and skill in using the sociolinguistic conventions for a given language). Furthermore, a distinction is drawn between communicative competence and actual communication – the realization of such knowledge and skill under limiting psychological and environmental conditions such as memory and perceptual constraints, fatigue, nervousness, distractions and interfering background noises.

It is important to stress that communicative competence refers to both knowledge and skill in using this knowledge when interacting in actual communication. Knowledge would refer to what one knows (consciously or unconsciously) about the language and about other aspects of communicative language use; skill refers to how well one can perform this knowledge in actual communication.

Both knowledge and skill underlie actual communication in a systematic and necessary way, and are thus included in communicative competence. Furthermore, this view is not only consistent with the distinction between communicative competence and actual communication but depends crucially on it; in particular, this notion of skill - how well one can use knowledge in actual situations - requires a distinction between underlying capacities (competence) and their manifestation in concrete situations (actual communication).

After clarifying these important points in relation to the nature of communication, it is possible to elaborate the different subcompetences gathered under communicative competence. It is important to realise that these subcompetences become crucial to successful outcome.





The notion of communicative competence is divided up into four subcomponents, or areas of knowledge and skill, which have been mentioned before, thus, grammatical, discourse, sociolinguistic and strategic competence are glossed below.

Grammatical competence simply refers to the mastery of the language code itself. That is to say, the knowledge of the linguistic signs needed in order to communicate through language. It takes into account the need for the speaker to be able to make correct use of language features such as morphology, syntactics, semantics, phonology and lexis. This aspect is important for communicators to attain a higher level of proficiency where accuracy is important.

Sociolinguistic competence is the appropriate use of utterances in different sociolinguistic contexts. There are different factors that the participants will have to take into account in order to successfully reach that appropriateness: the status of the participants, the purpose of the interaction and the different norms and conventions shared between the people involved in the exchange will have to be taken into account. They will also need to show appropriateness of meaning (eg. communicative functions, different ideas or attitudes which are proper in a given situations, like inviting or commanding) and form (proper verbal and non-verbal forms in a sociolinguistic context). This competence is particularly difficult to achieve as the skilled use of appropriate registers requires sensitivity to cross-cultural differences. So going beyond the sociolinguistic use of the language, we have the sociocultural subcompetence: This is the degree of familiarity with the cultural and social context in which a language is used. The speaker must also know the different norms of conversation that are used by native speakers.

Discourse competence refers to the mastery of how to combine grammatical forms and meanings to achieve a unified spoken or written text in different genres or types of text (a scientific paper, an argumentative essay, and oral and written narrative among others) according to the purpose of the communicative exchange and the interlocutors involved. The unity of a text is achieved through cohesion in form and coherence in meaning. It points to how the different utterances are linked structurally and how they must be understood as a text.

Strategic competence is referred to the mastery of verbal and non-verbal communicative strategies to solve problems during communication. The main goal to attain with this competence is first, to compensate for breakdown in communication, and secondly, to enhance the effectiveness of communication. To initiate, terminate, maintain, repair, and redirect communication may be achieved by paraphrase, circumlocution, repetition, hesitation, avoidance, guessing as well as shifts in register and style.





The theoretical framework presented can be applied to language learning through a communicative approach. Naturally, communicative competence is the central aim of language teaching as well. Optimum frameworks for acquiring a good communicative competence can be learned for any context or frame of reference.

Since the definition of communication includes a learning process, “reduction of uncertainty,” these five principles guide communicative learning approaches:

Coverage of competence areas. Communication is intended to involve the integration of the four areas of knowledge and skills mentioned before. There is no evidence for the analysis that grammatical competence is any more or less crucial to successful communication than the other subcompetences. The primary goal of a communicative approach must be to facilitate the integration of these types of competence for the learner.

Communicative needs. A communicative approach must be based on and respond to the learner’s (often changing) communication needs and interests. These must be specified with respect to all the subcompetences. There is an emphasis on fluency rather on linguistic accuracy, since learners need many different opportunities to communicate without having to concentrate on structure and form.

Interaction. An emphasis on authentic and meaningful communication should be the goal analytical processes. Learners need to have opportunities to take part in realistic communicative situations.

 Learner’s “native language” skills. The use of “native language” skills is essential in early stages of learning communicative competence. More arbitrary/less universal features of a “new language” must be practiced in less arbitrary/more familiar personal contexts. Learning is viewed as a process of creative construction which involves testing and error. Testing of communicative interactions is more effective than testing in particular areas of competence.

Frame of reference approach. The primary objective of a communication-oriented learning must be to provide the learner with information, practice, and much of the experience needed to meet their communication needs in the “new language.” In addition, learners should be taught about language in general and about the relevance of framed, language culture. Such a frame of reference approach may facilitate a natural integration of knowledge about a novel and unique frame, and of language in general.



Reaching for communicative competence is the main goal of a writer’s outlines, revisions and editing, of language teachers, and of all successful communicators.


The development of communicative competence implies abstract symbolic reasoning with common structures to manipulate. The sociolinguistic and cultural aspects must operate within the targeted frame of reference, and are refined by comparison and feedback from within the frame.


 This means that learning communicative competence places the communicator in different frames of reference where they can clearly and effortlessly construct successful communications which meaningfully address theme and situation. The purpose of the message becomes clear, goals are perceived as contextual, and communication can be judged successful because the outcome is plain for all to see.