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Communicative Competence


Amorey Gethin ©



“Communicative competence” is typical of the jargon phrases which language-learners have had to suffer in recent decades. All it really means is being able to talk to people in the foreign language. But it sounds like (and  is) something thought up by supposedly clever researchers at universities. So, most learners and teachers thought, it must be something very important, and the way they tell us to acquire or teach it must be the right one.


In fact, hiding behind this term is not only pretentious nonsense but very dangerous nonsense.


Several years ago now it was discovered that learners of English and other languages were not very good at the practical task of speaking them. Teachers came to think that simply talking about grammar and words was not a good way of spending a lesson. The traditional methods of ‘talk and chalk’ – telling students about the language and demonstrating it on the blackboard – went out of fashion. Such methods, it was believed, were horribly primitive and misguided. Teachers should ‘involve’ their students in the lesson more. The result was that a lot of teachers started going in for activities called group work, pair work, or role play. Students were given various tasks that they had to carry out on their own, or they enacted little scenes, or they had to make up sentences using certain words, or even had short debates among themselves.


Perhaps the main reason why so many teachers became keen on such methods was that they were rather desperately trying to solve practical problems in the classroom. There are several such practical problems. There is the problem of discipline in classes of children; the problem of finding something everybody in the class can be active in, because the teacher cannot give individual attention to each student; the problem of boredom, keeping learners amused.


Yet it is difficult to believe that teachers like and recommend things like group and pair work and role play because they truly think and have actually found that they are better and more effective ways for people to learn languages. Reason alone shows that that is simply not possible. I fear that hundreds of thousands of language teachers make their pupils do these things only because the experts have told them that this is what they should do, and so it must be having a useful effect. And of course it keeps everybody occupied. The sad reality is that it is wasting everybody’s time.


 Language-learning  is a task that has to be carried out by individuals on their own. It is a process of ‘noticing’ that has to be done singly. The more the process is shared and so spread out among others, the less effective it will be.


But there is something even more fundamental. It is too often forgotten that simply by using the language one can learn nothing. One cannot speak until one has some language to speak with, and one can only learn that language by observing – listening and reading, and noting what one hears and reads. There is no other way. So it is obviously very important that students should hear correct language, the genuine thing. Yet in classes where they do most of the talking themselves they will hear mostly each other’s often incorrect and unidiomatic speech more than anything else. Students clearly cannot learn from language that is wrong. But they are also not learning anything new by saying things that are correct, since the fact that it is correct shows that they have already learned it (by observation). Nor can students learn from the things their companions say that are correct, since they cannot know whether those things are in fact correct or not.


It is another matter that trying to talk may well – and should – draw one’s attention to things one does not know how to express, and so strongly encourage one to find out. But that sort of cause and effect cannot operate in the classroom. It needs unhurried thought by each student on his own. And if it is objected that practising talking in the classroom is the only way students can become confident in using the language, one must argue that it is simply not true. In the real world outside the classroom, confidence depends largely on the individual personality. For people who by nature don’t have the right sort of temperament, the necessary boldness and lack of shyness, the only thing that will give them true confidence is the confidence that they have mastered enough of the language. Furthermore, talking in the foreign language outside the classroom to native speakers is an excellent thing to do from the point of view of getting into the habit, and so long as one recognizes that it is practice, not learning.


Revised layout 20 April 2010


For further discussion of this subject, see  (‘Golden Rules’ for Language-Learning) and  (The Rational Learning of Foreign Languages), and

The Editor welcomes your comments or contributions to discussion of this article.

The article is based partly on an edited extract from The Art and Science of Learning Languages, by Amorey Gethin and Erik V. Gunnemark and published by Intellect (


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