What is communicative competence?

Communicative competence is one of those terms which is so familiar that we no longer consider what it really means. Communicative competence, we rattle off in teacher training courses or to interested outsiders, is our ability to use language in interaction to understand messages and make ourselves understood in turn.

We use the term in opposition to a narrower construct, linguistic competence, used in Chomskyan approaches to the study of language (sometimes call formal or “code” linguistics) to refer to native speakers’ knowledge of formal properties of language, such as whether a given utterance is grammatical.

Code linguistics contrasts with context linguistics (e.g. Widdowson, 2017). Context linguistics arose partly in reaction to Chomsky’s formalist approach, and from the desire among other linguists (in fields like sociolinguistics or the philosophy of language) to include what they saw as a crucial contextual dimension governing language use.

Language teachers might be interested in some online resources on communicative language teaching I have turned up. They offer additional references and activities relevant to practical classroom concerns.

In this post, though, I want to reproduce some theoretical discussion of communicative competence, mostly in relation to teaching and learning second and foreign languages. I think it’s important to go back to original sources from time to time to make sure we still know what we’re trying to talk about.

Most of the text is quoted; what is mine is in coloured ink. I read these texts (references at the end):

  • Hymes 1972
  • Wilkins 1972
  • Canale and Swain 1980
  • Widdowson 2003 (just what I could access on Google books)

Communicative competence (native-speaker)

Hymes 1972

The seminal text by Hymes opposing communicative competence to Chomsky’s linguistic competence, and also responding of necessity to the latter’s competence-performance distinction (more on that here).

1. Whether (and to what degree) something is formally possible;
2. Whether (and to what degree) something is feasible in virtue of the means of implementation available;
3. Whether (and to what degree) something is appropriate (adequate, happy, successful) in relation to a context in which it is used and evaluated;
4. Whether (and to what degree) something is in fact done, actually performed and what its doing entails.                                                         (Hymes, 1972: 281, emphasis in original)

This formulation seems to express an essential concern of present linguistic theory for the openness, potentiality, of language, and to generalise it for cultural systems. When systemic possibility is a matter of language, the corresponding term is of course grammaticality.

The predominant concern here has been for psycholinguistic factors such as memory limitation, perceptual device, effects of properties such as nesting, embedding, branching, and the like. […] With regard to the cultural, one would take into account other features of the body and features of the material environment as well.

As we have seen, appropriateness is hardly brought into view in the linguistic theory under discussion, and is lumped under the heading of performance, and, correspondingly, acceptability. […] ‘Appropriateness’ seems to suggest readily the required sense of relation to contextual features.

The study of communicative competence cannot restrict itself to occurrences, but it cannot ignore them. Structure cannot be reduced to probabilities of occurrence, but structural change is not independent of them […] Something may be possible, feasible, and appropriate and not occur. No general term is perhaps needed here, but the point is needed, especially for work that seeks to change what is done.

A syllabus for communicative competence (second/foreign language)

Wilkins 1972

I think this paper is probably more quoted than read; I had certainly never looked it up before. It has some of the hallmarks of behaviourist and structuralist approaches to linguistics you would expect from a text produced in the early 1970s, and you can certainly see how it influenced early versions of the CEFR. It is also of its time in the reaction against traditional grammar-translation methods of language teaching:

What people want to do through language is more important than mastery of language as an unapplied system (Wilkins 1972)

The paper is cited as a precursor or founding text for the notional-functional syllabus. Having seen textbooks taking this approach, I was surprised at the very abstract level of categories Wilkins proposes. Here’s the list without the examples, of which there are plenty (original here).

Notional categories

A. Semantico-grammatical categories

1. Time
2. Quantity
3. Space
4. Matter
5. Case
6. Deixis

B Categories of communicative function

7. Modality
8. Moral discipline and evaluation
9. Suasion
10. Argument
11. Rational enquiry and exposition
12. Personal emotions
13. Emotional relations
14. Interpersonal relations

Grammatical core and situational units

We must now decide whether it is possible simultaneously to provide a firm grammatical basis for subsequent learning and to meet predictable situational needs […] Provided three conditions are accepted, it is perfectly feasible to do the two things at once.
1. one must not expect the language in the learning units to be identical or even nearly identical with the language that would probably occur in the real situations. There are no simple language situations. The most simple situation may demand complex language.
2. forms are presented not solely for their relevance to immediate context of presentation but because they are of general value throughout the language. The occurrence of a new form but therefore be generalised and related to the entire grammatical system of which is it a part
3. Although the learner controls the language he produces outside the learning situation itself, he cannot control the language he hears. In this case provision may well have to be made for his early exposure to a much wider range of language than he will be required to produce.

Communicative competence (second/foreign language) Canale & Swain 1980

This is probably one of the key texts on the notion of communicative competence. There is a lot of discussion of previous writing, including Hymes, Wilkins, and Widdowson.

Guiding principles for a communicative approach

1. Communicative competence is composed minimally of grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, and communication strategies, or what we will refer to as strategic competence.

2. A communicative approach must be based on and respond to the learner’s communicative needs.

3. The second language learners must have the opportunity to take part in meaningful communicative interaction with highly competent speakers of the language, ie to respond to genuine communicative needs in realistic second language situations.

4. Particularly at the early stages of second language learning, optimal use must be made of those aspects of communicative competence that the learner has developed through acquisition and use of the native language and that are common to those communication skills required in the second language.

5. The primary objective of a communication-oriented second language programme must be to provide the learner with the information, practice and much of the experience need to meet their communicative needs in the second language.

Theoretical framework

Grammatical competence. This type of competence will be understood to include knowledge of lexical items and of rules of morphology, syntax, sentence-grammar semantics, and phonology.

Sociolinguistic competence. This component is made up of two sets of rules: sociocultural rules of use and rules of discourse. Sociocultural rules of use will specify the ways in which utterances are produced and understood appropriately with respect tot he components of communicative events outlined by Hymes (1967, 1968). The focus of rules of discourse in our framework is the combination of utterances and communicative functions and not the grammatical well-formedness of a single utterance nor the sociocultural appropriateness of a set of propositions and communicative functions in a given context.

Strategic competence. This component will be made up of verbal and non-verbal communication strategies that may be called into action to compensate for breakdowns in communication due to performance variables or to insufficient competence. Such strategies will be of two main types: those that relate primarily to grammatical competence (eg how to paraphrase grammatical forms that one has not mastered or cannot recall momentarily) and those that relate more the sociolinguistic competence (eg various role-playing strategies, how to address strangers when unsure of their social status).

Blyth summarises four strands of communicative competence thus:

  • grammatical (ability to create grammatically correct utterances),
  • sociolinguistic (ability to produce sociolinguistically appropriate utterances),
  • discourse (ability to produce coherent and cohesive utterances), and
  • strategic (ability to solve communication problems as they arise).

Communicative capability

Widdowson 2003

Going back to Hymes and Halliday, Widdowson proposes the term capability to replace competence and improve on problems he sees with the theoretical underpinnings of the notion of communicative competence. Briefly, he argues that grammatical competence should not be included in the construct of communicative competence because grammar relates to semantics and therefore to the language code, whereas communication involves language use in context, that is, pragmatics. To claim otherwise is to misrepresent the nature of communication, in his words.

Retrieving and adapting underlying knowledge

I introduced the notion of virtual language, by which I meant the potential inherent in the language for innovation beyond what has become established as well-formed or ‘correct’ encodings. In Chapter 10 I suggested that the nonconformities of learner language can be understood as realisations of this virtual language, and that such exploitations of linguistic potential are comparable to those which result in dialectal variation in language spread. The difference is that they do not stabilise: learners are induced into a conformity with actual encodings. But they are evidence of a developing capability for exploiting the virtual resources of the the code, and it is just such a capability, I have argued, that teaching should be designed to develop. Although learners will obviously adjust to the conventions of actual encodings as a course progresses, we should recognise that this process can only be partial and will have to continue after the course is over, as learners learn for themselves how to adjust appropriately to the encoding conventions they encounter. Capability on this account combines two things: the ability to exploit the virtual language, and the readiness to adjust to the conventions of actual encodings as and when required (Widdowson, 2003: 173)

Commmunicative capability as an underlying competence

This capability is essentially a knowledge of how meaning potential encoded in English can be realised as a communicative resources. A consideration of the language that expert uses, typically native speakers, actually produce makes it quite clear that this potential is only very partially realised on different occasions of use. The reason for this is obvious: people use their language pragmatically as a complement to context. The more informative the context, the less explicit the language needs to be. Effective communication depends on the subtle online regulation of the relationship between the two, and this will involve recognizing when it is contextually appropriate not to draw on the semantic resources as your disposal. But the crucial point to be made is that the resource is available when you need it. so although, for example, the analysis of actual conversation will reveal that people interact by means of elliptical utterance, with phrasal fragments of talk, these can be extended, if need be, by more explicit linguistic means. It is, of course, true that actual language behaviour does not consist of well-formed syntactic expressions, quite simply because they are surplus to requirement, but speakers nevertheless know what they are, and can draw on this knowledge as resource in cases where it turns out that they are not surplus to requirement after all. The language that people actually produce as observable behaviour presupposes a vast knowledge of language as unexploited potential. If learners of a language are to be come capable in a language, they clearly cannot just learn the patterns of what actually occurs as behaviour, but must also have a knowledge of the back-up linguistic resource that this behaviour presupposes. (Widdowson, 2003: 177)

Communicative capability > linguistic competence > explicit grammatical knowledge

There is more to linguistic competence than a knowledge of grammar, and more to language capability than linguistic competence. And it is capability, I have suggested, which is ‘at the core of language learning.’ The discussion in this book leads to the conclusion that it is the meaning potential of English that is ‘the most salient features to teach, and to test.’ This is the E of subject TESOL. Contriving ways of getting learners to engage with it and to appropriate it is, I would argue, what the subject is all about. (Widdowson, 2003: 174).


No conclusion, just food for thought. But with a little packaging.



Bateman, B., & Lago, B. Communicative language teaching. Methods of Language Teaching. 2008?
Blyth, C. Defining communication, in Speaking. Foreign Language Teaching Methods, COERLL. 2010?
Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied linguistics, 1, 1. PDF
Hymes, D. 1972. On communicative competence. In J.B. Pride and J. Holmes (eds.). Sociolinguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. PDF
Widdowson, H. (2007). Un‐applied linguistics and communicative language teaching. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17(2), 214-220.
Widdowson, H. (2003). Defining issues in English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilkins, D. A. (1973). The Linguistic and Situational Content of the Common Core in a Unit/Credit System. Systems development in adult language learning. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. PDF

Disciplinarity and disparity in applied linguistics: Widdowson, BAAL 2017

This 55-minute video shows Henry Widdowson’s plenary address given at BAAL 2017 in Leeds this summer, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the British Association for Applied Linguistics. You can watch the whole video from the above link (with automatic captions if you wish) and here is the abstract from the conference website.

Disciplinarity and disparity in applied linguistics

The identification and institutional status of applied linguistics as a distinct academic activity has always rested on a claim to disciplinarity. Its engagement with issues of language use and learning is said to be informed by the theoretical insights and empirical research of one discipline or another: indeed it now seems to be taken as self evident that applied linguistics is of its very nature an interdisciplinary area of enquiry. So what does this disciplinarity involve? Whatever other informing disciplines might be invoked as relevant, linguistics must presumably figure as primary. How then has applied linguistics realized the relationship with  the discipline of linguistics that is claimed to inform and lend authority to its practices? This discipline has itself been defined in two radically disparate ways: one focusing on the abstract properties of the linguistic code and the other on how language is realized in contexts of use, and applied linguistics, especially as related to language pedagogy, has tended to take its bearings from one or other of these.  Both disciplinary variants have their validity as methodological constructs but as such both are necessarily partial and reductive representations of language as it is actually experienced by its users, which is what applied linguistics is essentially concerned with.  The critical question then arises as to the relative relevance of these two disciplinary perspectives, how far they have been, and can be, drawn upon, and their disparity resolved, in dealing with problematic issues in the practical domains of language use and learning.

This post offers a summary of the main points with most of the references.

The goals of applied linguistics

For Widdowson, applied linguistics (AL) has two distinguishing features (02:00):
  1. it engages with problems to do with language experienced in the real world
  2. it deploys means which are are essentially disciplinary, though not necessarily restricted to linguistics.

“It is perhaps uncontroversial to claim that applied linguistics, in becoming more interdisciplinary, is better prepared for the principled handling of a range of distinct types of real world issues, and more critically aware of its methodologies.”

Bygate & Kramsch, 2000: 2
Widdowson suggests that this approach to AL implies
“the more disciplinary you are, the better prepared you are to handle real-world issues.”

In the early days of applied linguistics the disciplinary focus was on the teaching and learning of languages beyond first. Nowadays the field draws on a wider range of disciplines, and Lantolf (2013) seems to suggest that this wider focus is a sign of progress and increased “preparedness to handle a wider range of problems,” according to Widdowson.

In contrast, Widdowson espouses what he calls an “unfashionable view,” that is, preoccupation with

  • how the discipline of linguistics has informed the applied linguistics of language teaching, and
  • how far this substantiates the belief in a unilateral dependency relationship between interdisciplinarity and the handling of real world issues.

Milestones and landmarks

Some key publications in the area of applied linguistics with reference to language teaching.

Two theories

Chomsky Syntactic structures code linguistics: focus on formal features of code
Firth Papers in linguistics context linguistics: focus on how language is put to use

The disparity of views in these two publications has affected subsequent developments in linguistics. Chomsky’s approach follows Saussure, and can be characterised as a kind of structural formalism, which reduces language to a system of signs placed in categories. Firth, in contrast, focuses on the study of linguistic events in terms of social processes. Palmer, a follower of Firth, said in 1968 that Firthian views “lost out” to Chomsky because they were not so clearly delineated.

Lyons Chair in General Linguistics (Edinburgh University) Chomskyan
Corder Chair of Applied Linguistics (Edinburgh University) Firthian
Halliday, McIntosh & Strevens Linguistic science of language teaching Firthian

Halliday et al (1964) was an influential book, a manifesto for applied linguistics. The order of elements in the title gives priority to linguistics rather than teaching.

“He (the language teacher) is not teaching linguistics. But he is teaching something which is the object of study of linguistics, and is described by linguistic methods. It is obviously desirable that the underlying description should be as good as possible, and this means that it should be based upon sound linguistic principles”
Halliday et al: 1964: 66
Two views of linguistics can therefore be distinguished: Chomsky was concerned with the formal features of the code, while Firth was interested in how language is put to use. Thus we have two different objects of study, each using different methods, resulting in two different linguistic theories. And so applied linguistics also developed along different lines.

Interlanguage research and the Common European Framework

Widdowson argues that second language research and the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR) share an important feature, the construct of competence:

the two lines of development in applied linguistics seem to conceptually converge in that  both are concerned with identifying stages of approximation to native-speaker competence. CEFR can be seen as the functional equivalent to the formalist concept of interlanguage.

Widdowson, 2017: 32:57

He builds up to this conclusion as follows.

Continuing with the distinction made between the contributions of code and context linguistics to language teaching research, he cites key publications from both strands which appeared in 1972.

  • On the code linguistics side, Selinker’s interlanguage opened the way towards second language (L2) acquisition research, taking a formalist perspective. Once research had revealed the processes involved, this would allow the definition of criteria for the design of L2 teaching.
  • On the context side, however, Wilkins focused not on acquisition but on language learning objectives and how syllabus content might be developed to meet them.
  • At the same time, other linguists began the shift from linguistic form to communicative content:
Selinker Interlanguage construct for the study of process of second language acquisition
Wilkins Linguistic and situational content of the common core in a unit/credit system development of syllabus content to meet language learning objectives
Labov Sociolinguistic patterns instrument of communication used by the speech community
Hymes Toward ethnographies of communication communicative competence

This brought context linguists to the conclusion that what learners need to learn is what native speakers do, or linguistic events in social process, in Firthian terms. For Labov,

“It is difficult to avoid the common-sense conclusion that the object of linguistics must ultimately be the instrument of communication used by the speech community. If we are not talking about that language there is something trivial in our proceeding.”
Labov, 1972

With Hymes’ work on communicative competence, context linguistics became established as an alternative orthodoxy, offering a more coherent and systematic formulation of Firth’s principles.

1972 Hymes whether an act is

·      formally possible

·      feasible

·      appropriate

·      attested (actually occurring)

1969 Searle felicity conditions for speech acts
1974 Hymes restoration of contextual definition of linguistics (Austin, 1965)
1979 Brumfit & Johnson Communicative Language Teaching (drawing on Halliday and Hymes)
For Widdowson, this begs the question:
“So which approach should language teachers follow? How can applied linguistics reconcile this disparity?”
In other words, how can language be representative of native speaker usage but also be organised to correspond to natural processes of acquisition as revealed by SLA research?
This contradiction must be resolved if applied linguistics is to engage with real world language problems, according to Widdowson.


Disciplines deal in abstractions and works by categorisation. Disciplines reveal commonalities by ignoring differences and take a necessarily restrictive view of the world.

Both linguistic views described so far offer abstractions, they describe general dimensions of behaviour by disregarding variables of experience. The more a discipline seeks to account for difference, the less explanatory it becomes.

Code linguistics is often criticised as remote from actual experience, based on the fictional existence of an “ideal speaker-hearer in a homogeneous speech community” (Chomsky, 1965). But context linguistics is also remote from user experience and discusses idealised language varieties; speech act conditions are also abstractions. No linguistics can account for what actual people do, since variability is a natural consequence of actual language use (Trudgill refers to the “convenient fiction” of abstract categories).

The purpose of linguistics is as a discipline which devises conceptual constructs to explain collective, communal knowledge and behaviours; individuals only exist as members of categories (e.g., learners, native speakers, participants in studies). Individuals are selectively sampled as examples used to illustrate categories, but remain approximations. Users are typified, abstracted as members of groups or communities, and this is necessary for theories to be significant.

Applied linguistics is concerned not with what is valid but what is useful. Validity is not relevant to utility and vice versa: valid ideas may not be useful, but useful ideas may not be valid. If disciplinarity is to be useful, does it follow that more disciplinarity is better?

The answer can be found by examining one central disciplinary concept, the concept of competence.


Competence can be taken to mean what native speakers know of their language. In code linguistics, simplifying assumptions are made about the existence of communities, but the basis of SLA research is the investigation of learners’ success in approximating this competence along the interlanguage scale.

From the perspective of context linguistics, even if communicative competence and not linguistic competence is now in focus, a level of abstraction is still maintained. For Hymes, the extent to which one is communicatively competent is judged in terms of how far what one produces is

  • possible
  • feasible
  • appropriate
  • attested (“done”)

This can be measured only in reference to established norms, hence by abstraction.

“There is an important sense in which a normal member of a community has knowledge with respect to all these aspects of the communicative systems available to him. He will interpret or assess the conduct of others and himself in ways that reflect a knowledge of each.”
Hymes, 1972: 282
This definition of communicative competence is based on the construct of a distinct community whose members know language and conventions of use, with norms by which examples are judged.

L2 teaching thus mean “getting learners to replicate the communicative competence of native-speaking communities,” that is, using language that is

  • possible – correct or accurate by reference to the ideal encodings of the standard language,
  • contextually appropriate, and
  • attested in native speaker usage.
The focus on communicative function rather than linguistic form is what mades the Council of Europe 1972 threshold framework radical and now orthodox (see Van Ek & Alexander, 1975). Nevertheless, there is still a focus on form in the framework and in the design of course context. Although correlated with communicative competence, appropriate communication still involves producing the forms correctly.

In TBLT parlance, Widdowson suggests,

“if you want to be fluent you have to be accurate”

Learner language

However, for Widdowson, in language use, there is no such interdependency. Appropriateness depends on variable contextual factors. Communicative competence is not encoded in forms. To claim otherwise is to confuse the semantics of the language code with the pragmatics of its use and so to misrepresent the nature of communication.

CLT is not concerned with how language actually functions in communication, but only with the normative, stereotypical form that communication would take in an idealised NS community.

And yet this definition persists in the CEFR, which like Threshold level, is based on the same concept of competence. It also provides specifications for measuring how far learners have got in acquiring it.

And it is here that the two lines of development (code linguistics and context linguistics) converge conceptually.

  • both are concerned with identifying stages of approximation of native-speaker competence, and
  • the CEFR can be seen as the functional equivalent to the formalist concept of interlanguage

“What informs both is the assumption you can’t really be competent unless you conform to norms of how native speakers use the language; the closer you approximate to these norms the more competent you will be.

And if there is no such conformity then your linguistic conduct will be interpreted and assessed as inaccurate, inappropriate and evidence that you are an incompetent user of the language.”

So competence, whether linguistic or communicative, is an abstract construct defined in reference to the similar abstract representations of languages and communities as distinct entities. Such abstractions have their validity in the discipline of linguistics

they are convenient, necessary and sufficient for linguistics.

For applied linguistics, however, abstract constructs also need to be useful.

The usefulness of “competence” in applied linguistics

For Widdowson, the key question is to whom the notion of competence can be judged useful? Whose problems should “competence” be applied to?
Theoretical abstractions are useful for addressing sociopolitical concerns, making it easier to manage and control people, particularly if disciplinary validation can be called upon. The construct of native-speaker competence solves the problem of what is to be taught and tested. This makes it convenient for course designers and publishers, allowing them to prescribe what teachers should teach. It is especially convenient for the ELT industry by supporting the unique qualification of native speakers to teach English.

To this extent, the notion of competence does bears out the claim that applied linguistics provides a disciplinary solution to real world problems. It solves the problem of what should be taught.

From teaching to learning

 But what about learners? What of the problem of what learners encounter?

As things stand at present, what is learnt is given credit only to the extent that it corresponds to what has been taught. Assessment is based on teaching, not learning.

But we need to ask rather: why, in spite of teachers’ best efforts, do learners fail to conform? What’s their problem?

This problem has not been addressed by applied linguistics. For Widdowson, there is a pedagogical problem in applied linguistics. Language learning is impeded by teaching. Monolingual teaching makes a foreign language even more foreign. In teaching, any relation to the first language (L1) is deemed non-conforming.

However, it is actually normal to link the foreign language to the first language by appropriating it as an additional resource in a multilingual process of communication.

The teacher strives to replicate NS usage and denies natural processes, making learners acquire a separate competence. The teacher in effect inhibits learners from learning how to use language as a communicative resource and develop general lingual capability.

What we get is I think a glaring disparity between natural multilingual learning and the enforced imposition of monolingual teaching, making learners into teachees. No wonder they have a problem.
Widdowson, 2017:  40:04
Problems need to be defined not from a teacher’s point of view, as learners’ failure to conform to NS competence, but rather from a learners’ point of view.
If we take the perspective of code linguistics, How languages are learned (Lightbown & Spada, 2006) is what SLA is all about. However, the language to be acquired is defined in competence terms and L2 learners are incorrectly viewed as homogeneous group.
In the real world, according to Widdowson, the learning of languages is diverse. How learners view the language to be learned depends on typological L1-L2 distance, but also on how learners perceive the role and status of L2, and the “otherness” of FL. In Bourdieusian terms, we can view this in terms of economic, cultural, social, and symbolic capital.
Learners variably accommodate to L2, converging or diverging depending on accommodation possibilities. How learners conceive of the foreignness of the L2 affects their motivation, but also affects which features they seek to acquire. NS norms reflect little more than etiquette, and for learners with no idea of those norms, correctness has no purpose. They encounter users of the language who can get by very effectively without correctness (who are fluent, without being accurate).

What and how learners process another language thus depends on their conception of its foreignness, and the process will be locally variable and content-dependent.

“This is counter to a teaching-imposed, competence-based concept of language learning derived from the discipline. But it is this concept that currently predominates and is given an authoritative endorsement in the CEFR.

Dual monolingualism and a categorical conception of competence

The CEFR characterises all L2 languages as foreign, all learners as having the same objectives, with same communicative needs. Although it claims to represent a profoundly modified conception of goals of language learning and teaching, its categories of assessment are in line with previous models of language teaching. The goal is still the acquisition of dual monolingualism.

The change in terminology from native speaker to the more politically correct term expert user does not alter the objective, which remains the acquisition of an ideal, monolingually defined competence.

There is no recognition that expertise is not an absolute but a relative quality, not a matter of how closely a learner might approximate the competence along an assessment scale, but how far they can use the resources of the language effectively in relation to communicative purposes.  In this sense, learners could be expert users even if they don’t meet CEFR assessment criteria.

The problem is this categorical competence conception of language teaching. It is  convenient for stakeholders, but comes at the cost of misrepresenting the processes of natural language use and learning.

Language learning as a starting point

At present, language teaching informs learning. But learning should influence teaching, rather than vice versa. To determine what kind of disciplinarity, what types of abstraction are appropriate we shouldn’t assume disciplinarity as defining features of AL. The unilateral application of disciplinarity impedes progress. This is linguistics applied (Widdowson, 1980, 2000). Applied linguistics should reverse this dependency: instead of disciplinarity being applied to real world issues, real world issues should determine what type of disciplinarity is of use.
Disciplinarity needs to be regulated by practical value and usefulness. It is ancillary to problem-solving. Otherwise it becomes a self-justifying academic exercise. Since AL is an institutionally established academic field of academic inquiry, with university departments, associations, and its own peer-reviewed journals, this academic orientation is inevitable. Peer reviewers are academics and disposed to evaluate papers by university criteria (impact factors).
But we need to ask what impact do our contributions have on the outside world? At present, the diversity of AL depends on range of fields rather than range of problems that can be addressed. There is a disparity between what is promised in principle and what is delivered in practice.


Widdowson notes in conclusion that he has not argued against disciplinarity, but claimed instead that disciplinarity is only useful if the nature of problem to be handled is analysed first. He brings us back to Firth’s context of situation:

A context of situation for linguistic work brings into relation the following categories:
  • the relevant features of participants: persons, personalities
    • the verbal action of the participants
    • the non-verbal action of the participants
  • the relevant objects
  • the effect of the verbal action

JR Firth

Widdowson offers context of situation as an analytic framework for handling real-world issues. Second language pedagogy should consider what type of communication is relevant for given learners; we cannot presuppose disciplinarity.

In terms of his opening questions, we might interpret his argument thus:

  • the discipline of linguistics has informed the applied linguistics of language teaching via both
    • code linguistics: interlanguage and SLA
    • context linguistics: communicative competence and the CEFR
  • this has been a unilateral dependency relationship which has favoured established institutional power relations and failed to serve learner needs
  • applied linguistics should develop concepts and constructs to serve language learning, rather than being with disciplinary abstractions and seek to apply those.

His talk concludes with remarks on how far AL has come, on his aim to raise critical awareness of questions, challenges, and opportunities, and this quote from TS Eliot.


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Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge university press. PDF
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. IRAL-International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10(1-4), 209-232.
Van Ek, J. A., & Alexander, L. G. (1975). The Threshold Level in a European Unit: Credit System for Modern Language Learning by Adults: System Development in Adult Language Learning. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.
Widdowson, H. G. (2013). On the applicability of empirical findings. European Journal of Applied Linguistics, 1(1), 4-21.
Widdowson, Henry G. (2012). ELF and the inconvenience of established concepts. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 1(1), 5–26.
Widdowson, H. G. (2009). The linguistic perspective. Knapp, A., & Seidelhofer, B. (Eds.) Handbook of foreign language communication and learning, 6, 193.
Widdowson, H. (2007). JR Firth, 1957, Papers in Linguistics 1934–51. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17(3), 402-413.
Widdowson, H. (2007). Un‐applied linguistics and communicative language teaching. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17(2), 214-220.
Widdowson, H. G. (2000). On the limitations of linguistics applied. Applied linguistics, 21(1), 3-25. PDF
Widdowson, H. G. (1980). Models and fictions. Applied Linguistics, 1(2), 165-170.
Wilkins, D. A. (1973). The Linguistic and Situational Content of the Common Core in a Unit/Credit System. Systems development in adult language learning. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. PDF

Some research on young and very young language learners

With more and more second/foreign language learners beginning at ever earlier ages,  it is worth consider our definitions of young learners and the implications of research with these populations for language teaching.

Second language acquisition versus bilingualism

Indeed, child SLA is often misunderstood by language educators. It may be confused with bilingualism, or dismissed on the grounds that “children somehow absorb language easily and more quickly than adults” (Copland & Yonetsugi 2016: 224).

Philp, Oliver and Mackey (2008) set a cut-off for bilingual acquisition, where the learner’s two grammars develop simultaneously, at age 2. From 2 years onwards, it is more accurate to talk about L2 acquisition, considering that the new grammar is being acquired after the first. According to Nicholas and Lightbown (2008: 38), child L2 acquisition differs from adult SLA in a number of ways, and can involve

  • extended silent periods
  • code switching/mixing
  • transfer of L1 word order
  • imaginative play.

The next cut-off occurs at age 7. Young learners starting before age 7 generally achieve native-like proficiency, whereas “the proportion of native-like proficiency outcomes progressively decreases” among learners who begin after that age, probably due to the development of literacy (Nicholas & Lightbown, 2008).

This research suggests first that it is important to distinguish a) young learners who are first exposed to a second language from the age of 2 from b) bilingual speakers. Second, it is necessary to take into account the different needs and expected attainment of learners before and after age 7.

Indeed, Muñoz and Singleton (2011:16-17) suggest that younger child learners are likely to achieve higher proficiency, while older learners will make quicker progress:

older learners have a rate advantage, whereas younger learners have an ultimate attainment advantage

Muñoz and Singleton (2011)

Teaching young and very young learners

These authors however issue an important caveat: we should not compare classroom learners with learners ‘in the wild,’ since “in a typical limited-input foreign language setting,” these authors warn that “age does not yield the same type of long-term advantage as it does in a naturalistic language learning setting” (ibid.:19).

Although “more and more children are learning languages at younger ages” (Pinter 2014: 179), and pedagogical practice now generally divides very young learners from older ones (Nikolov & Djigunovic 2011; Bland 2015), not many studies have yet been carried out to test instructional effects.

Very young EFL learners in Dutch schools

One exception is Dutch research on very young learners of English in the Netherlands. A recent study involved 168 four-year old EFL learners who received up to one hour, two hours, or over two hours of exposure per week in Dutch schools. They were compared with a control group of four-year old pupils who were not receiving EFL instruction (De Bot 2014; Unsworth, Persson, Prins & De Bot 2014).

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Overall effectiveness of early intervention

Tests conducted after one year of instruction, and again after the second year showed an advantage in grammar for all EFL pupils, and a significant difference for those who received more than one hour of English per week.

the children in early EFL programmes scored significantly higher than children who were not in such programmes and when analysed in groups, after controlling for the effect of teachers’ language proficiency, those with more than 60 min of weekly classroom exposure scored on average significantly higher than those with 60 min or less

Unsworth et al. 2014: 13

Amount of target language exposure

Interestingly, however, young pupils who had less than one hour of English per week performed no better on vocabulary acquisition than those who had no English teaching at all.

all children participating in early EFL programmes scored significantly higher than the control children for grammar, but for vocabulary, there was no significant difference between the control children and the EFL children with 60 min or less of lessons per week

Unsworth et al. 2014: 15

The authors acknowledge that the specific context of English in the Netherlands is likely to have played a role: English is of course typologically related to Dutch and relatively prevalent as a global language present in films and digital games, and used by second language speakers. Thus the control group of uninstructed EFL learners were no doubt exposed to English in their everyday lives.

The study also sought to quantify the acquisition that occurred in these very young learner classrooms. The pupils in the study who had at least one hour of classroom EFL instruction “were found to acquire as much English in 2 years’ time as young monolingual English-speaking children do in approximately 5 months” (Unsworth et al. 2014: 14). These figures may appear unimpressive at first glance, but remember that the classroom learners received much less language input and fewer opportunities to interact in the target language than monolingual English children acquiring at home. (They are also continuing to acquire Dutch L1.)

Teacher proficiency

Following Muñoz and Singleton’s (2011) recommendation to use “the teacher’s input rather than some general conception of native speaker norms as the model against which to measure learners’ achievement,” this study also investigated teachers’ proficiency.

When divided into teacher proficiency groups, and after controlling for min- utes/week, children with an NNS teacher at CEFR-B level only were found to score significantly lower than the other groups and they developed significantly more slowly over time, at least for vocabulary. The results of the regression analyses suggest, however, that teachers’ language proficiency rather than minutes/week is the best predictor of children’s scores on both vocabulary and grammar

Unsworth et al. 2014: 13

They found a teacher with CER level C or native proficiency to be “a good predictor of the results for vocabulary after 1 year and of the results for grammar after 2 years.” They interpret this finding as support for “the importance of teacher’s own proficiency level,” while also suggesting that “NS teachers are not necessary” for very young learner L2 development (Unsworth et al., 2014: 18).

Some conclusions from research

Here are some findings to be drawn from research into early L2 teaching and learning:

  1. Child L2 language is qualitatively different from older learner language particularly in pragmatics; spontaneous, playful and idiosyncratic L2 use is much more common among young learners (Philp et al., 2008).
  2. Very young learners (aged 2-7) can usefully be distinguished from older learners (7-12), as the characteristics of their language production and use change with the development of literacy (Nicolas and Lightbown, 2008).
  3. The popular trend towards beginning L2 instruction “the earlier the better” enjoys only tentative empirical support: thresholds for both quantity and quality of input appear to apply (Munoz and Singleton, 2011; Unsworth et al., 2014).



Bland, J. ed., 2015. Teaching English to young learners: critical issues in language teaching with 3-12 year olds. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Copland, F. & Yonetsugi, E., 2016. Teaching English to Young Learners: Supporting the Case for the Bilingual Native English Speaker Teacher. Classroom Discourse, 7(3), pp.221-238.

De Bot, K., 2014. The effectiveness of early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), pp. 409-418.

Muñoz, C., & Singleton, D. 2011, A critical review of age-related research on L2 ultimate attainment. Language Teaching, 44(01), 1-35.

Nicholas, H. and Lightbown, P.M., 2008. Defining child second language acquisition, defining roles for L2 instruction. Second language acquisition and the younger learner: Child’s play, pp.27-51.

Nikolov, M., & Djigunović, J. M. 2011, All shades of every color: An overview of early teaching and learning of foreign languages. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, 95-119.

Philp, J., Oliver, R., & Mackey, A. (Eds.). 2008, Second language acquisition and the younger learner: child’s play? New York: Benjamins.

Pinter, A. 2014, Child participant roles in applied linguistics research. Applied Linguistics, 35(2), 168-183.

Unsworth, S., Persson, L., Prins, T., & De Bot, K. 2014, An investigation of factors affecting early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Applied Linguistics.

Photo credits

Jason Rosewell

Carolina Sanchez B

Ben White

Hannah Tasker

Robyn Budlender

bill wegener

frank mckenna

Annie Spratt

Outils numériques pour l’enseignement des langues

Une formation sur le numérique pour les langues de spécialité au Pôle langues à Paris 2 avec l’accent sur quelques outils gratuits simples et des exemples de mise en oeuvre dans des activités pédagogiques qui visent une communication spontanée et le travail collaboratif, et permettent un feedback individualisé par l’enseignant.


Outils numériques pour travailler en langues dans le supérieur

Des tutoriels courts avec un bref descriptif, lien internet, idées pédagogiques, puis petit guide de prise en main ; également des outils comparables et un mot sur les inconvénients éventuels.

Exemples de pratique

1. Un projet de storytelling

Donner des retours individuels et collectifs sur une production orale en utilisant

2. Re-écriture d’un conte

Partage de ressources libres et rédaction collaborative sur Google Docs

Pour aller plus loin

Mieux comprendre l’enseignement-apprentissage par tâches

Monter un projet télécollaboratif

Les ressources et les pratiques éducatives libres (REL, PEL)

  • Déclaration de Paris sur les ressources éducatives libres 2012 PDF
  • Kurek, M. & Skowron, A. (2015). Going open with LangOER. PDF


English Wordlists for teaching and learning EFL/ESL

On his Wordlists page, @muranava has a curated selection of English wordlists, both general and subject-specific. Find information about the General Service Word List, the Academic Word List, as well as specific corpora and recent updates to available resources.


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@muranava teaches EFL in higher education (engineering, business) in Paris, so some lists reflect that teaching context. He also runs a corpus linguistics community on Google+ with references, advice and updates on research and tools.