Goal: Communicative Competence

Language teaching in the United States is based on the idea that the goal of language learning is communicative competence: the ability to use the language clearly and appropriately to accomplish communication objectives. Success in language learning means being able to understand and convey real meaning in actual communication situations, not (necessarily) being able to use the language exactly as a native speaker does.

Communicative competence is made up of four competence areas: linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic.

  • Linguistic competence is knowing how to use the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of a language. Linguistic competence asks: What words do I use? How do I put them into phrases and sentences?
  • Sociolinguistic competence is knowing how to use and respond to language appropriately, given the setting, the topic, and the relationships among the people communicating. Sociolinguistic competence asks: Which words and phrases fit this setting and this topic? How can I express a specific attitude (courtesy, authority, friendliness, respect) when I need to? How do I know what attitude another person is expressing?
  • Discourse competence is knowing how to interpret the larger context and how to construct longer stretches of language so that the parts make up a coherent whole. Discourse competence asks: How are words, phrases and sentences put together to create conversations, speeches, email messages, newspaper articles?
  • Strategic competence is knowing how to recognize and repair communication breakdowns, how to work around gaps in one’s knowledge of the language, and how to learn more about using the language in specific contexts. Strategic competence asks: How do I know when I’ve misunderstood or when someone has misunderstood me? What do I say then? How can I express my ideas if I don’t know the name of something or the right verb form to use? What strategies can I use to manage and increase my sociolinguistic and discourse competence?

Language learners develop competence in all four of these areas when language teaching builds on the five goal areas of the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages (ACTFL):

  • Communication: Whether engaging in interaction, interpreting, or presenting information, students use their linguistic competence to understand and select words and to put them together. They use their discourse competence to interpret and construct longer stretches of language. Their sociolinguistic competence enables them to understand the ways language fits the context and the speakers, and their strategic competence enables them to recognize and manage communication breakdowns.
  • Cultures: Students develop sociolinguistic competence as they become aware of the role of cultural elements in communication. They develop discourse competence as they increase their knowledge of cultural expectations and norms for discourse structure, and strategic competence as they learn culturally appropriate ways to manage communication breakdowns. As students develop these competences, they gain understanding of cultural perspectives and practices.
  • Connections: Students apply their linguistic and discourse competence to gain access to content area knowledge that is available in the language they are studying. As they pursue such knowledge, they encounter opportunities to increase their linguistic and discourse competence. Their sociolinguistic competence increases as they recognize the distinctive viewpoints expressed in the language. Finally, students apply their strategic competence to aid themselves in understanding challenging content material.
  • Comparisons: Making comparisons between the language or culture studied and their own encourages students to think actively about the linguistic, sociolinguistic, and discourse differences between them. To do this they draw on, and become aware of, their own linguistic, sociolinguistic, and discourse competence.
  • Communities: In order to use the language within and beyond the school setting, students draw on all four areas of competence. Communicative competence enables students to use the languages for personal enjoyment and enrichment.

In the early stages of language learning, teachers and students may want to keep in mind the goal of communicative efficiency: That learners should be able to understand and make themselves understood, using their current proficiency to the fullest. They should try to avoid confusion in the message (due to faulty pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary); to avoid offending communication partners (due to socially inappropriate style); and to use strategies for recognizing and managing communication breakdowns.


Background Resources on Communicative Competence

The four competences were first defined, and ways of developing them in language teaching were described, in the work of Sandra Savignon, Merrill Swain, and Michael Canale.

The concept of communicative efficiency comes from the work of Jeremy Harmer.

  • Harmer, Jeremy. (1991). The practice of English language teaching. London: Longman.


Read More

Method: Learner-Centered Instruction

Guidelines for Communicative, Learner-Centered Instruction