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Communication is very important to both, children and adults. Regardless of any disabilities, all human being acquire the ability to communicate subconsciously. The topic is chosen as an issue of education due to two main reasons. First, it is within the same topic that the writer chooses as his research scope. Secondly, because it is the most prominent problem that the writer realizes faced by the students in the school that he did his practicum.
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A child acquires his mother tongue through exposure he receives from the surrounding namely his parents, friends and the societies. The mutes learn the sign language base on a similar purpose to any normal kids, which is to deliver and receive messages. The developmental stages of the acquisition process are best defined through various aspects throughout the children’s ageing process (Lightbrown & Spada; 2006). Due to the similar fact on the importance of communication, people are required to master more than only one language. Improvement in technologies, business opportunities, education and many other fields has open more opportunities for the world societies to exchange and share ideas of similar interest. One of the most typical technologies that have increased the needs of learning English as a second language is the enhancement of the internet. This is why learning and mastering a second language becomes crucial.
In answering this question which is, ‘what does it means to acquire communicative competence?’, it is important to clarify the meaning of all of the important terms included in the question such as the terms ‘acquire’, ‘communication’, as well as ‘communicative competence’. Literally, ‘acquire’ means to gain something by your own efforts, ability or behavior: She has acquired a good knowledge of English (Oxford Dictionary; 2005). Acquire is best understood when being compared to the word ‘learn’ where it is a process gone through by learners in formal settings with a well-defined stages according to the appropriate level of difficulties. Acquire on the other hand is a process of automatically empowering a skill or ability through either formal or informal settings. Communication means the activity or process of expressing ideas and feelings or of giving people information: Speech is the fastest method of communication between people. (Oxford Dictionary; 2005). It includes process of sending information either verbally through words of spoken mouth or non-verbally through sign language. Communicative competence has been so far considered as a major term in the field of second language acquisition.
There is no specific definition yet that can be claimed as the most suitable meaning in defining what does ‘communicative competence’ means. However, base on various readings, I managed to find the best explanation in defining the meaning of this term. According to George Yule (The study of language; 2006), communicative competence can best be defined as the general ability to use language accurately, appropriately and flexibly. However the degree of such competencies can be measured in three different components. It consists of the grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence and the strategic competence.
The first component is grammatical competence, which involves the accurate use of words and structures. (George Yule; 2006) Noam Chomsky definition of grammatical competence takes into account phonological competence as part of the components. One good example of this component is learners need to learn and understand the different time references of sets of words such as ‘he takes’, ‘he took’ and ‘he has taken’, and to be able to make appropriate time reference when speaking or writing the words. In short, it can be interpreted as the ability to recognize and produce the distinctive grammatical structures of a language and to use them effectively in communication
Concentration on grammatical competence only, however will not provide the learner with the ability to interpret or produce second language expressions appropriately. This ability is actually the second component, called sociolinguistic competence. It enables the learner to know when to say ‘Can I have some water?’ versus ‘Give me some water!’ according to the social context. Much of the discussion on the pragmatics aspect has to become familiar in the cultural context of the second language if the learner is to develop sociolinguistic competence. (George Yule; 2006)
The third component is called strategic competence. This is the ability to organize a message effectively and to compensate, via strategies, for any difficulties. In second language use, learners inevitably experience moments when there is a gap between communicative intent and their ability to express that intent. (George Yule; 2006) The implications might either be good as well as bad. The good thing is when learners try to express themselves using a communication strategy. Example is when a learner use the vocabularies that already known to them in referring to things that they have no idea of its’ English word such as, ‘a plate to put cigarette’s dust’ that refers to an ‘ashtray’. In the worst cases, learners may just stop talking, which is a bad idea in learning a language.
In close reference to only the definition provided above, communicative competence can best be defined as being able to automatically and interpret received information accurately with correct grammatical application that reflects the real contextual meaning wished to be conveyed, as well as able to compensate unknown or difficult words into typical, understandable language.
There are a few assumptions made by linguists in regards of the nature of verbal communication which I believe may help to further explain the meaning of acquiring a second language communicative competence. The assumptions include that communication is meaning-based, conventional and interactional. (Jack Richards; 1985).
Under the meaning-based aspect of communication, most of the examples given are based on people that learn English as their second language. It helps a lot in making my very own assumption in regards of determining the true meaning of acquiring a second language communicative competency. This assumption differentiate English users base on two different needs. The basic survival need and the survival level need.
The basic survival need refers to, learners who have active vocabulary of perhaps two hundred words, minimal knowledge of the syntax of English, but in a situation where English is required for simple and basic communicative purposes. The immediate need refer to a core basic “referents” or things in the real world such as name of things, states, events and attributes using known words. Basic survival requires learner to be able to link words together to make predications, that is, to express propositions. At this level, learning a language is seen as learning how to create propositions. (Jack Richards; 1985)
The survival level need implies more than construction of propositions. At this level, learners are usually identified as adult speakers. They use propositions in utterances in a variety of ways such as to ask a question about a proposition, to affirm a proposition, deny or negate a proposition or express an attitude toward a proposition. Speakers’ immediate need is to work out a way of performing such operations as stating, affirming, denying, or questioning propositions as economically as possible. Here speakers have needs similar to children who are learning their mother tongue as complex utterances are expressed within the limited grammatical system known to the speaker. However, the way they express the need is rather more advance and complex compared to children expression or utterances.
By making comparison of both levels, it can be concluded that being able to make propositions alone does not make a second language learner communicatively competence. The skills that learners and speakers of a second language use to express their needs as well to be able to produce accurate utterances and acquire the ability to restructure their existing vocabularies to meet the demand of contextual suitability, is a part of the components of acquiring a second language competency.
The next assumption is on the conventional aspect of communication. Under this assumptions, the goals of English language learners change through the acquisition process. It is stated that, as language acquisition proceeds, the learner revises his or her ideas about how propositions are expressed in English. Learners’ syntax become more complex as his or her knowledge of negation, the auxiliary system, questions, word order, embedding, conjoining and so on expands. (Jack Richards; 1985) At this stage, learners are believed to have gained the grammatical competence. Propositions or utterances made by learners are differentiated into two kinds. The first is a ‘conventional’ way of making propositions and utterances which is in close context to daily usage and the second is ‘novel utterances’. The best way to explain the difference between both types of communication forms is by looking at these two sentences below.
“Would you mind mailing this letter to me?”
“It is my desire that this letter be mailed by you.” (Jack Richards; 1985)
The first is an example of a conventional utterance as it is used by native speakers of the language and in close context to real life conversation. The latter is an example of a novel utterance. Even though it is a grammatically correct sentence, it holds no status as a potential utterance within discourse, which is not applicable in daily conversation. This assumption address that, once learners have progressed to the stage where they are beginning to generate novel utterances, they find that many of their utterances fail to conform to pattern of conventional usage, although they are undoubtedly English sentences. (Jack Richards; 1985) This proves that, only a fraction of sentences that could be generated by our grammatical competence are actually ever used in communication. This is because communication is largely consists of the use of language in a more conventional ways.
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In reference to defining the meaning of acquiring communicative competency, I believe that producing grammatically correct sentences is of ultimate importance because it hinders misunderstanding and increase the intelligibility. The fact that language is conventional has important implications for language teaching as it suggest that language acquisition is better compared to the process of language learning. However, it is also important for learners to practice communicating, verbalizing or delivering their thoughts using sentences which are in close context to the purposes of the communication that takes place so that the intended meanings become clearer and more authentic.
The next assumption is on the interactional aspect of communication. Under this assumption it is said that, language is used to keep open the channels of communication between people and to establish a suitable rapport. (Jack Richards; 1985) In any action, each actor provides a field of action for the other actors, and the reciprocity thus established allows the participants to exercise enacting a self or identity, and using strategies to accomplish other interactional ends. (Jack Richards: Goffman: Watson; 1985) In explaining the quoted explanation, it is best to look into the initial stage of conversation between two strangers. To raise a safe topic is a typical strategy in starting a small talk. Topics are carefully chosen so that there is a strong likelihood of mutual agreement. This allows speakers the right to stress his agreement with the hearer, and therefore satisfy the hearer’s desire to be right or to be corroborated in his opinions. (Jack Richards; 1985) A safe topic is defined as much of what passes for communication with the purposes of sociability. (Jack Richards: Bolinger: 1975) Examples of safe topics are topics for virtually everyone such as the weather, the beauty of scenery, opinions on the public transportation and many more. (Jack Richards: Brown & Levinson: 1978) These are examples of what has been called phatic communion. Basically, there are three main mechanisms of phatic communion namely the speakers’ repertoire of verbal and visual gestures, speakers’ stock of canned topics and formulaic utterances and lastly the awareness of taking turns in a conversation.
Speakers’ repertoire of verbal and visual gestures refer to the signals send and receive by speakers which signal interest in what his or her conversational partner is saying. This includes the use colloquial utterances to show agreement as well as disagreement such as ‘mhmm’, ‘uh-uh’, ‘a-hah’, ‘yeah’, ‘really?’ and many more. The importance of colloquial language in terms of addressing appropriate context according to the appropriate social class has been highlighted by Janet Holmes in her book, ‘An Introduction to Sociolinguistics’. She stated that, there are other strategies besides topic manipulation which have been used in order to capture people most relaxed or vernacular speech style.
The second mechanism is the speakers’ stock of canned topics and formulaic utterances. These are produced at relevant points in discourse, such as the small talk that is required to make brief encounters with acquaintances. (Jack Richards; 1985) From my opinion, I think the terms ‘stock of canned topics’ and ‘formulaic utterances’ here refer to the utterances that a speaker says while the conversation takes place either between his or her common friends as well as to strangers. This is the ability to connect topics which is in the similar context with what has been said at the initial stage of the conversation with the purpose of extending the conversation for a longer period.
The third mechanism is the awareness of taking turns in a conversation. This refers to the awareness of when to talk and when not to talk, that is, appropriate use of turn-taking conventions. (Jack Richards; 1985) This is a mere fact of practicing politeness in a conventional communication. Being polite is a serious business in any language. It is difficult to learn because it involves understanding not just the language, but also the social and cultural values of the community. In fact it involves a great deal more than superficial politeness routines that parents explicitly teach their children. (Janet Holmes; 2008)
The assumption has provided me with another insight towards defining second language communicative competency. It takes into account the credibility as well as the ability of a learner or speaker to speak freely regardless of who the receivers or hearers are. The selection of suitable topics in initiating a conversation, the ability to hold a conversation for quite some times and to show respect towards the other speaker without stereotyping and by not neglecting the affectionate factors such as politeness is also a key element in acquiring a second language competency.
To conclude, acquiring a second language communicative competency requires learners to master the basic needs of communication which are the ability to transmit and interpret received information accurately with correct grammatical application that reflects the real contextual meaning as well as able to compensate unknown or difficult words into typical, understandable language. Other than that, learners need to be able to acquire the ability to restructure their existing vocabularies to meet the demand of contextual suitability. Furthermore, it is important for learners to practice to communicate using sentences which are in close context to the purposes of the communication that takes place so that the intended meanings become clearer and more authentic. Learners should also be able to manipulate suitable topics in initiating a conversation and to hold the conversation for quite some times while showing respect towards the other speaker without stereotyping and by not neglecting the affectionate factors such as politeness.
There is a major difference between communicatively competence and speaking competently. I realized that throughout the essay, most of the explanations made were regulated around only two points. First, is in defining the meaning of communicative competence. Second, is elaborating the meaning of acquiring second language communicative competence from the perspective of only verbal communication. I realize that the process of communication is not restricted to only one channel which is speaking. It can also be through other means of sending and receiving messages such as writing, listening and reading. This is considered as a delimitation which I encountered in accomplishing the task. My initial plan was to define the meaning of acquiring communicative competence from the four main components of English language learning which are speaking, listening, reading and writing. However, due to the limited resources, I decided to choose only one part of the second language communicative competency aspect.
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