Cross-Cultural Communications (Communicative Competence)

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If you want to improve your cross-cultural communication and intercultural communication skills you need to know about communicative competence. This term was coined by the sociolinguist, Dell Hymes to counter the term coined by Noam Chomsky, linguistic competence. I teach you how to communicate across cultures!

Broadly speaking, communicative competence is what allows you to use language appropriately given the social situation. When we are ordering smoothies, the way we interact with the cashier will be different from when we are in a cafe with our friends. When we’re in a client meeting we’ll communicate differently than we would if we were ordering pizza on the phone. 

Within communicative competence we have (1) linguistic competence (2) sociolinguistic competence (3) discourse competence and (4) strategic competence. As a native speaker of our first language (L1) we already have communicative competence. However, we have to increase our communicative competence in any other foreign language we learn (L2). We designate second language as L2 but this could be your third, fourth, fifth language, dear Polyglot! 

Let’s unpack these 4 competencies within “Communicative Competence” shall we?

(1) Linguistic competence 

Linguistic competence means that you know the language system. You understand the vocabulary, the grammar, syntax, the pronunciation, the meaning (semantics), the phonology or sound patterns of the language. You understand the rules that govern that language. Most people are able to achieve linguistic competence since that is what one would learn in a typical language classroom. But, unbeknownst to many, it is NOT THE ONLY ASPECT OF LEARNING A LANGUAGE. It is only one of four of the competencies you need to be able to say you have communicative competence in said L2. And this holds true for any language that is spoken in the world. If you want to improve your cross-cultural communication skills and boost your intercultural relationships then you need to have communicative competence. Just knowing how to say hello, goodbye, and other survival phrases in an L2 is not going to make you a competent communicator, a successful international businessperson or a good conversationalist in the L2. There’s more to the equation, Explearners.

(2) Sociolinguistic competence

Sociolinguistic competence means that you are aware of the unwritten social rules that govern how that language is used. That is, you know when it is appropriate to use language and how to respond appropriately. You not only understand the various speech acts, but when to use them. For instance, when someone invites you to an event but you’re busy, you know how to decline an invitation politely. You know what registers to use, you know how to deliver your message, and you are aware of timing. These are all the unwritten rules of language that are ingrained in the society and embedded in the culture more broadly. Dell Hymes’ SPEAKING model can help answer the questions you undoubtedly have about what politeness indices you need to use, what attitude you should go about performing the speech acts (assertiveness, friendliness, sarcasm, etc.) and other factors that encompass effective communication.

(3) Discourse competence 

Discourse competence means that you are able to speak and write in the L2. You are able to read a text and understand it. You are able to hear a speech an unpack it. You can listen to a podcast and decipher the meaning aurally. You are able to organize the words in a sentence, paragraph, essay properly. Every language has a different word order. Some subject–verb–object (SVO), subject–object–verb (SOV) or verb–subject–object (VSO) word order. So as an L2 learner you would know which one the language is and be able to produce written and spoken language that aligns with their word-order rules (SVO, SOV, VSO). 

(4) Strategic competence 

Strategic competence means that you are cognizant of potential miscommunications or communication breakdowns, which are inevitable. We call this repair. In communication you “repair” communication breakdowns before, while or after they happen. Perhaps an incorrect phrase was used, maybe the improper intonation was implemented, or maybe the interlocutor is completely perplexed. All of these occasions call for repair. The speaker needs to fix something in their communication so that the message can be properly conveyed. 

These are instances of the problem coming from the speaker - an internal factor - inhibiting successful communication. But repair is also needed if there is an external factor inhibiting effective communication. Maybe the cell phone signal is weak and the person on the other end of the phone conversation cannot hear. Maybe the restaurant is too noisy and the interlocutor cannot hear the speaker. Anything (internal or external factors) that obstructs the message from being conveyed well can be cause for repair. 

The L2 speaker/learner needs to know how to repair. They need to know what repair strategies to implement in the fact of a potential or current communication breakdown. What are these strategies?

  • clarification requests (Could you clarify, please?)
  • elaboration requests (Perhaps you could elaborate on that concept, Jane?)
  • asking for louder/ clearer/slower speech (Couldn’t catch that. Would you be so kind as to speak more slowly?)
  • repetition requests (Would you mind repeating that, George?)

The other repair strategies could include use of gestures or body language to express a point, describe a situation or define a nebulous phrase. The L2 speaker needs to be aware of turn-taking in conversation so that they can give the floor to another speaker, or take hold of the floor when their turn arises. Maybe they need to aggressively interject or they’ll never get a chance to speak. The point here is that every culture, society, speech community treats turn-taking differently. So you need to be familiar with the unspoken rules that govern when it is appropriate to speak up, chime in, interrupt, keep silent and how to do those things.

Dell Hymes’ framework for communicative competence will come in handy. Have a look at this video 🎥📽🎦

Hymes created the Speaking Framework to help us make choices in our communication. The way we communicate is contingent upon the scene, the participants, the message, the medium of communicating as well as plenty of other elements. Watch the video about the Speaking Model for more information about this. Dell Hymes’ model is particularly of interest in explaining language use. It is not enough to have linguistic competence (Noam Chomsky). We also need to be privy to the cultural underpinnings of the language. And we need to understand when to speak, how to deliver our message, and what speech acts to choose from. When we accurately use speech acts and perform them in a socially acceptable way, we can participate in speech events.

Why does communicative competence matter?

By working on your communicative competence, you will be more productive in your L2. This will come particularly handy when doing business in that language/within that culture. It will be useful when communicating cross-culturally for personal or professional reasons. It will deepen intercultural relationships and strengthen your interpersonal communication with speaker of the L2. It will make you a happier individual because you have actually learned the L2 (not just the grammar).

Happy Explearning 🐝