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Hymes’ Theory of Communicative Competence

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    Hymes’ view of communicative competence (cf. 1967; 1972) brought an anthropological understanding to language, as it provides a model for analyzing a communicative event in its socio-cultural context. His model indicates the various parameters that govern communication in terms of what to say, when, to whom, and how to say it, and with what intention. This set of parameters in its pragmatic, goal-oriented, and functional aspects has served as a guide for language teaching since the 1980s. It formed the basis of the functional approach to language teaching (cf Wilkinson, 1976), which was developed further in the Threshold Levels (Van Ek, 1991) of the Council of Europe, the precursor to the Common European Framework, which I discussed earlier in the chapter.

    This approach focused on language functions in a few specific domains of language use such as shopping, travel, house and home, food, and drink. Language teaching for communicative competence reduced Hymes’ notion of communication to a limited and fixed set of situational topics, through which the learner would encounter and practice communicative acts such as giving a warning, inviting someone or asking for help, within set domains using set phrases. Its focus became a goal-oriented view of language where limited features of the situational context were the principal determinants of the linguistic choices to be made.

    Reducing language teaching predominantly to the context of situation limits the learners’ understanding of the role that our social and cultural environment has to play in our language use. Considering the context according to set parameters assumes that the rules for social communication used in one situation are the same in all situations of that kind. Like the Saussurean tradition, it assumes stability of meaning. It ignores the unpredictability of communicative events and the individual choices we might make in our utterances to respond to the context. It could be argued that learners would at least need to learn the conventions used in certain communicative settings, but even in situations governed largely by conventions we have the freedom to act in accordance with those conventions or not. As Kress (1994: 176) argues, even a decision to conform is an act of choice, and as such involves a ‘new production of the meaning of conformity’.

    However, it is not only the limited interpretation of Hymes’ (1967; 1972) formulation of communicative competence view of language which is the problem. I believe that his model, whilst helping us to understand the very important role of the immediate context, or the context of the situation, does not fully address the idea of the complexity of culture. Even though cultural conventions are addressed through the parameters of ‘norm’ (social rules) and ‘genre’ (arguably a social view of text), it does not question or consider the wider view of ‘context of culture’, which consists of wider societal influences and ideological forces and discourses (Halliday, 1985). Hymes did consider ideology in his later work, which I will refer to in the next chapter, but that work did not have an impact on language teaching.

    The two notions of context come from the anthropologist Malinowski (1884-1942). Kramsch glosses Malinowski’s idea of ‘context of situation’ as the ‘immediate physical, spatial, temporal, and social environment in which verbal exchange takes place’ (1998: 126). Indeed, this is similar to Hymes’ parameters governing communicative competence. But in order to understand meaning more fully, one also had to take account of the context of culture, Malinowski argued, which, as Kramsch quotes Malinowski, means taking account of ‘tribal economics, social organization, kinship patterns, fertility rites, seasonal rhythms, concepts of time and space’ (ibid. p. 26). Whilst this relates to a traditional anthropological and static view of culture, the idea of context of culture can include a poststructuralist view of culture. The aim of achieving communicative competence in language learning has now been replaced by the notion of Intercultural Communicative Competence (Byram, 1997). I discuss this in Chapter 3.

    This page titled Hymes’ Theory of Communicative Competence is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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