Sample Essay on English

This article can be seen as a review of different interpretations of the term “Communicative Competence” by different authorities, starting with Savignon’s basic communication skills to a more incorporating framework of Communicative Language Ability by Bachman. In comparing what components are included and how they are categorized and sequenced, the article addresses points of confusion in those theories. As concerns the implementation of Communicative Competence as a goal of English language teaching, broad implications are discussed which is followed by a case study is presented in the context of teaching English to undergraduate English major students in China. The article ends with an examination of and suggestions on appropriate goals of language teaching within the context.

I. Literature Review: Communicative Competence and Goals of Teaching English As a Foreign Language
Quite by accident, I became wide aware of the failure of our teaching when I came across one of my former students in a photocopy room in Wuhan University. He, already a junior, majoring in English language and literature, was working on an application letter to a university in the United States. I was shocked to discover that he knew nothing about writing a letter. He even had no idea where he should put the address or what kind of salutation is appropriate, let alone how to phase the letter in a formal and sincere manner. Such knowledge is definitely included in some courses. The message conveyed here is that knowledge about language or even about the language use, complete or not, correct or not, is by no means adequate for our students. What knowledge is minimally adequate for a learner to be able to communicate in real context? What kind of awareness should be cultured (instead of being taught)? We will have some insight into these questions by examining the theories of language proficiency and communicative competence developed by linguists of different periods, though some of them are technically tentative and tangling.

I.1. From Chomsky to Halliday and Hymes: Inclusion of a Sociosemantic Dimension
There is no need to explain Chomsky’s well-known distinction of competence and performance, which excludes either sociocultural or notional-functional aspects of language use from linguistic study. Halliday rejects Chomsky’s view for one fundamental debate: Is such a distinction at all necessary and meaningful? (see I.iii) Halliday (as cited by Canale & Swain, 1980 and by Bachman, 1990) analyses language and its function from both “textual” (“what the speaker can say and can mean”) and “illocutionary” (“what the speaker can do”, speech act) aspect. Hymes’ (as cited by Canale & Swain, 1980) concept of “communicative competence” expands Chomsky’s competence as grammatical competence to an interactional level involving “grammatical, perceptual psycholinguistic, sociocultural and probabilistic” aspects. He further suggests that competence not only includes knowledge but also ability to use such knowledge, about which Canale & Swain (1980) hold a reserved opinion.

Although Halliday and Hymes deal with competence-performance distinction differently, they both approach language proficiency within a social context and extend the notion into the field of psycholinguistics and discourse, which is particularly useful in language teaching and broadens the scope of research for the linguists below (Yalden, 1987).

I.2. From Savignon to Canale & Swain to Faerch to Bachman: Expansion of the Dimensions of Communicative Competence
Both Sandra Savignon (1972) (as cited by Canale & Swain, 1980) and David Wilkins (1979) enumerate in detail the functions of language and linguistic skills and strategies. Despite the dispersiveness of those functions and basic skills, which may result in difficulty in designing syllabus and contents, their analysis provides very implicit reference for our classroom teaching and learning activities. Savignon (as quoted by Yalden, 1987) develops her definition of communicative competence further as “the expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning involving interaction between two or more persons belonging to the same or different speech community (-ies), or between one person and a written or oral text”. I find this interpretation very inclusive in that it makes reference to both perceptual and productive aspects, discourse and strategic aspects, as well as sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic aspects.

Tracing down to more recent frameworks of communicative competence, one will discern that more and more new dimensions are explored and subsumed. As a consequence, there appear to be confusion and blur between definitions or even within one definition. The problem of categorization and shifts of terminology can be obviously observed when comparing the framework of Canale & Swain (1980), Faerch, et al. (1984) and Bachman (1990).

One of the most frequently cited frameworks of communicative competence is proposed by Canale and Swain (1980):

  • grammatical competence (mastery of the language code)
  • sociolinguistic competence (sociocultural appropriateness in both meaning and form; discourse: cohension and coherence)
  • strategic competence (grammatical/ verbal and sociolingusitic/ non-verbal strategies)

As complements, they underscore the following points:

  1. Distinction is drawn between communicative competence (both knowledge and skills) and “actual competence” (realization of knowledge and skills under psychological or social constraints);
  2. A subcomponent of probability rules of occurrence should be included;
  3. Underlying knowledge about language and communication should be taught;
  4. Communicative competence is interrelated with a theory of human action (psycholinguistic parameters) and of world knowledge (cognitive aspects), though they should not be included under communicative competence;
  5. These components can be and should also be studied independently;
  6. Communicative competence is viewed as a subcomponent of a more general language competence.

These five points deserve mention because I find they somehow serve as precedent for the framework of Faerch, et al. (1984) and of Bachman (1990).

Faerch’s conception of communicative competence is essentially quite similar to that of Danale & Swain’s with exception of:

  1. the former defines competence as both knowledge and ability; while the latter consider ability is more related to performance;
  2. the former sees linguistic competence to be a part of pragmatic competence, as a part parallel to pragmatic and discourse knowledge;
  3. the former subsumes fluency as overall productive ability to use whatever knowledge the speaker has at ease; also subsumes metacommunicative competence (rather similar to Canale & Swain’s emphasis on their complementary point 3) which is helpful to language learning.

He holds that the study of communicative competence should not be isolated from and is based on the social knowledge or competence acquired through learners’ first language; that communicative competence is interrelated with cognitive competence; and that the specifications and the application of communicative competence theories should take socio-psycholinguistic characteristics of individual learners into consideration. He also makes an important statement concerning the assessment of communicative competence: the communicative competence of native speakers can be criteria for the evaluation of the communicative competence of the language learners, but it’s false to боequate the latter to the former’.

Bachman’s scheme of communicative competence serves very good syntheses of all the interpretations mentioned above. It is again transformed from Canale and Swain’s framework. It incorporates communicative competence as “a subcomponent of a more general language competence” as written by Canale and Swain. This all-encompassing framework of “communicative language ability”, named by Bachman, built on the knowledge of the world and related with the context of situation, consists of language competence, strategic competence and psychomotor mechanisms (Fig.1).

Integrated and inclusive as this framework is, its implication on language teaching would be too subtle and complex to be analyzed. For the same reason, the implementation would be rather difficult. However, it could be an index we can always refer to in evaluating our syllabus and teaching contents as well as in carrying out examinations.

I.3. Components and Their Relation Under Debate
So far I have covered different attempts to untangle the notion of communicative competence. It can be said that there is no consensus on what components should be included in communicative competence. At minimum, some basic points of dispute warrant clarifying.
i) Is it necessary to distinct competence from performance?
ii) Should communicative competence include grammatical competence? Should it include the ability to use the knowledge? Should it include psycholinguistic component?
iii) What is the order or sequencing of the components?

It seems that most researchers do not doubt in such a necessity. The distinction between competence and performance by Chomsky is clear-cut. In Chomsky’s scheme, competence can be abstracted and studied, while performance is too various to be investigated, thus not suitable for linguistic research. With the expansion of the components of communicative competence, I find, however, the distinct between competence and performance becomes blurred. From Halliday to Bachman, competence gradually subsumes many dimensions of actual contexts of language use, like the capability to practise such knowledge and psychological factors. I should say competence as inclusive as that is actually the performance. Studying competence in actual social, discourse and individual context is studying the performance. I think that is why Canale & Swain attempt to delimit clearly communicative competence and “actual communication” “excluding ability and affecting factors of psychological and environmental feature such as memory and perceptual constraints. Admitting that the distinction between competence and performance helps control the scope of our research, such a distinction stays, to some extent, on a definition level.

Then in what order shall we put grammatical competence, the competence of getting meaning across (“semantic options”) and appropriateness of utterances (sociolinguistic components)? In theoretical field, linguistic code is of priority. Many researchers may have objection, but this is how the study on linguistics has been developed. In teaching practice, however, I quite agree with Canale and Swain (1980) that the sequencing should differ according to different level of the learners and their communication needs. It will be as arbitrary to say sociolingusitic constraints determine the meaning and the grammatical form we choose, or the other way, as to say second language teaching should mirror the sequencing in our first language acquisition.

No matter where the debate over these questions leads to, the conception of communicative competence should be conditioned to suit different teaching circumstances, different objectives of teaching and different groups of learners

II. Application of Communicative Competence Theory in the Context of Teaching Undergraduate English Major Students in China
While the conception of communicative competence has been extending to include manifold meanings, it bears perhaps the most important message of language learning and teaching (Brown, 1994):

Given that communicative competence is the goal of a language classroom, the instruction needs to point toward all of its components: organizational, pragmatic, strategic and psychomotor. Communicative goals are best achieved by given due attention to language use and not just usage, to fluency and not just accuracy, to authentic language contexts and to students’ eventual need to apply classroom learning to heretofore unrehearsed contexts in the real world.

II.2. Implications of Communicative Competence on English Language Teaching in General
The development of theories of communicative competence has manifested broad and in-depth impact on almost every aspect of the practice of language teaching including syllabus design, approach and methodology, material design, etc.. These theories provide guidelines to our teaching, but raise puzzles at the same time.

As discussed in the former sections, being communicative involves meaning as well as grammar. This implies: i) concentration on use and appropriateness rather than exclusively on language form; ii) complexity of relationship between form and function. These are the points we should refer to when designing syllabus or deciding on the contents and approaches. Wilkins (1979) deals with incorporating both form and notional-functions in the language syllabus. Three questions are brought up: a function taught together with several grammatical forms or reverse; the balance between form and notion and functions in a syllabus; the generalization of forms and functions taught. Yalden (1987) presents a balanced syllabusбкproportional syllabus as it is called. Figure 3 shows the three phases in language teaching according to different levels of learners.

Another question is “whether language teaching can deal separately with linguistic competence and pragmatic competence”. Or, can pragmatic competence be taught after all? Although components of communicative competence are integrated and interweaved, it does not necessarily mean they cannot be studied separately. Linguistic competence can be taught alone, as the traditional teaching approach does. But pragmatic competence is based on language form without which pragmatics even does not exist. It’s possible for language teachers to teach explicitly pragmatic knowledge to students. But the result of such an explicit instruction may be as in vain as the traditional instruction of linguistic forms. It will be better for teachers to cultivate the awareness of these components through teaching linguistic knowledge and let students draw on their own pragmatic knowledge acquired in their first language. Teachers, however should be aware of the idiosyncratic aspects of foreign language pragmatic competence different from those of the first language.

As Faerch (1979) states, regarding grammatical competence as an important part of communicative competence does not imply “linguistic competence has to be all correct.” Just like linguistic errors exist, so do the sociocultural errors. Then, the notion of error should not be restricted to incorrect grammar (McDonough & Shaw, 1993). Faerch further suggests that comparing with grammatical errors, errors on a discourse level cause more miscommunication.

The above being the most fundamental implications of communicative competence, there are others concerning material design, the shift of teachers’ role and language testing, which I am not going to discuss:

Communication includes four language skills, both perceptual and expressive. (eg. Fluency does not only apply to spoken language, but also reading.)

Communication is set in a scheme broader than the sentence level. It must deal with discourse analysis and other dimensions related to the specific teaching context.
Real-life communication tasks should be “achieved through the target language”, instead of just “in the language”.

Reference in detail may be found in MacDonough & Shaw (1993), Yalden (1987) and Bachman (1990).

In the following sections, such implications are examined in a concrete language teaching context to see the feasibility of communicative competence as the goal of language teaching.

II.3. Communicative Competence As a Goal of Language Teaching in the Given Context: A Study on the Context of Teaching Undergraduate English Major Students in China
So far we have been discussing such factors in language teaching as syllabus, teaching methodology and materials, etc., while there is another domain that has far more fundamental influence on language teaching and learning. Sociopolitical context involves the difference between English as a second language or foreign language and the government language policy (Brown, 1994). Many critics comment that there are two failed areas in China’s education, one politics, the other English. In many parts of China, exposure to English is extremely limited except in classroom, which poses in front of the teacher and students a great obstacle. It takes great effort to achieve the language proficiency described in those frameworks of communicative competence. The language policy of the government, like in many other EFL countries, is made in dilemma: to popularize English language education without being indoctrinated by western ideology. The curriculum and general syllabuses made by the educational authorities take English language teaching to be the same like a course of mathematics instead of “language”. For a long time, “to be literate in English” is the objective in general rather than “to be communicatively competent”. In case of teaching English major students, the learning circumstances are better in that students have more classroom hours; students have opportunity to interact with foreign teachers and contact the culture of the target language; students are offered courses dealing specifically with four language skills. Of course, the objectives described in syllabus are more comprehensive and demanding.

In the past three years, I taught first and second year English major students in Wuhan University. Less than 20 percent of the total staff in my department received (higher than) Master’s education. Many of them received no formal teacher’s education. It can be said that they lack in competence of language teaching as well as the research potential. Then, teaching students communicative competence would be demanding for them. As I observed, the “teacher talk”, the most important source of target language input, is frequently a combination of Chinese and English. The department once launched a short training program of communicative language teaching. A common comment on it was that the ideas were good, but rather unrealistic because it sets a standard teachers themselves can hardly achieve. Meanwhile, only a few teachers have funds and opportunity to do research in the field of applied linguistics, and even if they do, the findings of research are seldom applied in the teaching practice. As far as the features of learners are concerned, the students are mostly highly motivated. They understand the importance and promising status of their specialty and are generally interested in language learning. They have acquired intermediate or intermediate-high proficiency (as described in ACTEL Proficiency Guidelines) in English language when they enter college. They are friendly oriented to the culture of the target language. They are cognitively mature. They attempt to learn consciously and try understanding abstract rules and linguistic conceptions.

But these advantages are counteracted by the inappropriate curriculum design and demoded teaching methods and insufficient authentic input. It is pathetic but true that syllabus, which should be the ready reference for every teacher for their daily teaching practice, is something kept almost exclusively to the head group of the department. That is to say, syllabus becomes something to be studied or discussed on meeting. Rarely did I see the syllabus for English major students, nor did I see other teachers refer to it. But there is a syllabus studied once a year: syllabus of TEM 4, the national test for English major students. The same is the case of “foreign experts”: they know little about the context of TEFL in China, little about what the students are required to achieve through their teaching. A serious consequence is that each course is taught without coordinating the content and schedule with other courses. Here are the course arrangements of the four-year program:

1st year: Comprehensive English, Spoken English, Listening Comprehension, Extensive Reading.
2nd year: Comprehensive English, Spoken English, Listening Comprehension, Extensive Reading
3rd year: Advanced Reading, Writing, Introduction to British and American Society, British Literature
4th year: American Literature, Lexis, Rudimentary Linguistics, English for Specific Purposes

For the first two years, the focus is set on basic language skills. Comprehensive English is essentially a course of intensive reading covering vocabulary, grammar and a small proportion of pronunciation and conversational practice. While extensive reading deals with reading skills. In the last two years, the scope of study extends to academic reading, critical writing, sociocultural knowledge and literature. Such a schedule has a satisfactory “surface value” – it covers language skills and linguistic knowledge and social knowledge. But the program cannot be called as communicative because:

  1. grammar course is crossed out off the list, which should be a very important course giving students overall and systemic understanding of the language code;
  2. the teaching of spoken and listening English and writing is largely structural instead of being authentic and is not tailored to real-life communicative needs;
  3. teaching materials are uniformly structuralist in content, showing no relation between form and function;
  4. although introduction to foreign culture and society is offered, it nearly has nothing to offer about the pragmatic competence or strategic competence
    the language study is still restricted at a sentence level instead of discourse level;
  5. the techniques of instruction are exercise-oriented;
    the assessment of students’ performance in the courses are through tests about the crammed and rotten knowledge (with the only exception of Spoken English).

As a result, our students, when graduate from university, have problem in writing a simple letter of application! There, of course, have been successful students. But their success is built upon their own efforts instead of benefiting from our teaching. Therefore, the question is not what components of communicative competence represent appropriate goals for my situation (my students even have problems with basic communication skills as described by Savignon while they are expected of far more than that), but rather how to adapt our teaching, how to train our teacher to suit the goals of communicative competence, even the real basic ones!

To be practical, we need take the students’ communicative needs into consideration before we finally decide on the objectives of our teaching. Most students will be teachers or, more often, work in a joint-venture company. It is high-demanding to be a teacher, as I have said; while to a interpreter or clerk in a company, one doesn’t have much to accomplish as for the use of language. It is difficult to set up goals suitable to every individual. The following objectives, I think, should be the bottom line for my students:

  • Proficiency as mastery of four language skills
  • Linguistic competence particularly related to phonology and lexis
  • Discourse competence
  • Sociolinguistic competence, particularly knowledge of register and appropriateness

In addition, general language education which is not directly related with the target language should also be given attention. I find from my own experience, basic knowledge about language and language learning and psycholinguistics is of great benefit to English-major students in that it helps them develop proper learning strategies and keep them aware of their learning process. It is again crucial for the teachers to remember: always use authentic materials; present the knowledge in a real context and give students enough chance to use the language to communicate.

To draw a brief conclusion, scholars have broken down the components of communicative competence in various ways. Different interpretations have different bearings on our syllabus design, teaching and learning process and testing. But these interpretations work mainly on a policy level. When we are actually developing curriculum and evaluation scheme of our teaching in a specific context to a specific learner group, we have to define our own framework of communicative competence. It will take great efforts and a long time to accomplish such a reasonable and feasible framework. In the course of implementation, we will be confronted with hindrance from the traditional teaching approach and from those who have been teaching and taught under the guidance of the traditional approach. In spite of the practical difficulties in promoting communicative competence, we see this is the change that is taking place and will continue in language teaching in China. It is worthwhile for the institutes and the policy-makers and for the teachers to try.

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