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

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


Top tools for learning 2016

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I recently responded to an online poll of educators’ tools for learning and saved my responses to kick off a class on learning technologies for language teachers.

These are my picks; here’s why. (They are all free.)

Getting started


LastPass is a password manager that saves your passwords online and lets you access them from one master password (the *last pass*word you’ll need from now on). It can generate secure passwords, but I don’t risk this (if you have connectivity problems you can’t retrieve these from memory). Instead I create my own passwords with a keyword system and save them to LastPass.

I suggest this as my first tool for learning because it’s the obvious first hurdle to using almost any platform, tool, or application and I find until students or trainees are confident logging in and out of multiple sites it’s difficult to build up confidence or expertise.

An associated tool is Xmarks, which lets you synchronise bookmarks across browsers and devices, which I also find useful for moving between machines, though if you share computers it might not be so relevant.

Google apps

Once you have your password manager set up, my next recommendation is Google Drive, where you have e-mail (Gmail), online storage (Google Drive), online wordprocessing (Google Docs) and spreadsheets (Google Sheets), as well as Calendar, Slides, and Forms (for online surveys, questionnaires, and tests). Also worth a look are Sites for building your own websites or getting learners to do so, and Communities for working with groups.

I find these work well for planning my teaching, administration (attendance, grades), giving feedback on student writing (Docs), or collecting links to sound files, for example (Forms). We have run telecollaborative projects on G-Drive, using a private folder to save student-teacher video selfies, with sub-folders for class tandems to share their learners’ productions and prepare collaborative papers and presentations.

If you have multiple Google accounts it’s worth associating one account with one browser (work gmail on Firefox, home gmail on Chrome, for example) to avoid problems signing in and out. I have never found the offline functionality anything close to effective, so only for use with good internet connectivity.

Writing and feedback

Google Docs

As noted, Google docs is useful for your own writing, but also for use with learners. They can edit their own documents, prepare translations in groups, or submit work for evaluation and you can set access to private (sign-in), public (no sign-in) or an intermediate option with files accessible via link (no sign-in).

I find the Docs interface (there is also one for Sheets, etc) less easily navigable than Drive. Also be aware that you need a computer for full functionality – on smartphones and tablets comments are not accessible, for example.


Evernote is very useful for taking notes offline and saving all sorts of bits and pieces which you can tag and sort into Notebooks or leave unorganised to search. The search function is great and it works offline. There’s an app for your phone but the free version limits the number of devices you can connect.

Collaboration and sharing


After Google apps perhaps the single most useful tool, Dropbox lets you save files and synchronise across devices. I use it to save teaching materials (slides, handouts) but also for collaborative research writing with colleagues in other countries. Accessible offline, syncs in the background, usable like a drive or folder on your own computer.

One thing to be careful about: the default drag and drop which copies a file from one drive to another in other circumstances moves the file on Dropbox. So if you download a file from a shared folder you delete that file for others. Doesn’t work well on an external drive; you must save your local version on your local hard drive.


This free website platform lets you make your own website with images, media, and other links very easily and intuitively. It has the advantages over Google sites of a) letting you create classes with your students’ names and e-mails, and b) making comments on pages easy to see.

Audio and video


For language teachers, you need the digital audio player VLC, which plays any format you can imagine.


This open platform is a good place to share audio files, which you or your learners can upload and save privately, share to a select audience, or open to the world. With adult learners you can outsource the recording (smartphones), uploading (SoundCloud), and sharing (Google Forms) so you can focus on the feedback.

Social media


I use the microblogging site to find and communicate useful resources for teaching (educator blogs, tools, pedagogical resources) and research (conference and journal calls for papers, new publications).


I save the references in my tweets to curated sites to help keep track, though the service for the free version of Scoop.it has fallen off and it may not be worth starting there now.

Low-tech classroom teaching

Finally, special mention for technology you can use in class without technology: with Plickers, learners hold up paper cards to answer pre-set or spontaneous multiple choice quizzes, and the teacher records them via smartphone.

Vidéo et visio en apprentissage des langues médiatisé par les technologies (ALMT)

Communication à la Journée d’études ICAR 2, Université de Lyon et Université d’Ottawa

Vidéo et visio :  des outils de médiatisation de l’activité au service  de la collaboration et de la formation

Cette présentation s’appuie sur trois projets de recherche-action collaborative axés sur la vidéo, utilisée comme outil de communication de classe et/ou comme instrument de recherche et de formation.   Les données comprennent des entretiens semi-structurés appuyés sur une rétroaction vidéo avec enseignants et apprenants d’anglais des premier et second degrés.   Le re-investissement des résultats s’est fait auprès des enseignants participant aux projets, ainsi que dans la formation initiale et continue à des niveaux différents (local, national, européen), en présentiel et à distance.   Ces expériences soulèvent des questions relatives aux prédispositions des enseignants ainsi qu’aux contraintes institutionnelles par rapport à leur formation.