On communicative and linguistic competence.

AuthorKarimnia, Amin


Communicative competence, which is a broad version of language competence, and the Chomskyan view, linguistic competence, are examined in this paper. We will deal with some of the language aspects that are part of the nucleus of communicative competence from different scholars' points of view. Then the paper concludes with the pedagogical implications of the development of the theory of communicative competence.


While there has already been much debate about linguistic competence and communicative competence in the second and foreign language teaching literature, the result has always been the consideration of communicative competence as a superior model of language following Hymes' opposition to Chomsky's linguistic competence. This opposition has been adopted by those who seek new directions toward a communicative era by taking for granted the basic motives and the appropriacy of this opposition behind the development of communicative competence.

Munby, for example, in his development of "Communicative syllabus design" refers to Hymes' effect both on his work and the foreign and second language teaching field:

The upsurge of interest in the content of the language syllabus, following the concern with communicative competence generated by Dell Hymes, reflects inter alia a feeling that we ought to know much more about what it is that should be taught and learned if a non native is to be communicatively competent in English (Munby 1978: 1). Much of Hymes' justification for the development of his theory of communicative competence is based on his criticism of Chomsky's linguistic competence. In other words, communicative competence was developed as a contrast to Chomsky's linguistic competence. So let's begin with linguistic competence.


Chomsky states that linguistic theory is concerned with an ideal speaker/listener in a completely homogeneous speech community who knows language perfectly and is not affected by factors such as memory limitations or distractions. He specifies his positions about the ideal speaker/listener in a statement that grammatical or linguistic competence is a cognitive state which "encompasses those aspects of form and meaning and their relations, including underlying structures that enter into that relation which are properly assigned to the specific sub-system of the human mind that relates representations of form and meaning." (Chomsky 1980: 24-59).

In a statement about generative grammar, he says it is expressive of principles which determine the intrinsic correlation of sound and meaning in language. It is also a theory of linguistic competence, a speaker's unconscious latent knowledge (Chomsky 1966: 46-47). He adds that serious investigation of generative grammars quickly reveals that rules which determine sentence forms and their interpretations are both intricate and abstract: the structures they manipulate "are related to physical fact only in a remote way by a long chain of interpretive rules." And it is because of the abstractness of linguistic representations that the analytic procedures of modern linguistics--with their reliance on segmentation and classification, as well as, principles of association and generalization in empiricist psychology--must be rejected.

This is, of course, clear rejection by Chomsky of phrase structure grammar and principles of operant conditioning in behaviorist psychology popularized in audio-lingual approaches to target language learning. And it was partially, but significantly in reaction to audiolingualism that communicative language teaching (C.L.T.) arose. The Chomskyan opposition to behaviorism should not, however, be seen as compatible with negative reaction in communicative language teaching circles to audio-lingualism. C.L.T., audio-lingualism, as well as behaviorism, are all experientially based. Chomsky's views of generative grammar, linguistic competence and language teaching are decidedly not. In fact, his general remarks about contemporary language teaching are not complimentary.

While dealing with reasons for distinctions between the difficulty in teaching target language to adults and the ease of childhood language learning, Chomsky (1988: 179-182) made these remarks:

Use your common sense and use your experience and don't listen too much to the scientists, unless you find that what they say is really of practical value and of assistance in understanding the problems you face, as sometimes it truly is. He is, however, more explicit when he says, persons involved in a practical activity such as language teaching should not take what are happening in the sciences seriously, because the capacity to carry out practical activities without much conscious awareness of what is being done is usually far more advanced than scientific knowledge.

Ideas in the modern sciences of linguistics and psychology, which are of little practical use to understanding the distinctions, "are totally crazy and they may cause trouble." He adds that modern linguistics has very little to contribute which is of practical value. Language, he says, is not learnt. It grows in the mind. It is thus, wrong to think that language is taught and misleading to think of it as being learnt. (Chomsky 1982: 175-176).


To get a better picture of communicative competence, let's state some of the prominent and enduring applied linguistic views of communicative competence.

Savignon (1985: 130) views communicative competence as:

... the ability to function in a truly communicative setting --that is a dynamic exchange in which linguistic competence must adapt itself to the total information input, both linguistic and paralinguistic of one or more interlocutors. Communicative competence includes grammatical competence (sentence level grammar)...

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