An ELT Glossary : Communicative Competence

Definition : The ability not only to apply the grammatical rules of language in order to form “correct” sentences, but also to when to use these sentences and to whom. This involves knowledge of :

a)    systemic (“formal” or "grammatical") potential
b)    appropriateness
c)    occurrence
d)    feasibility

Examples : 

a)  The expression  He work in factory is systemically inaccurate.

b) The expression Give me a coffee! Is systemically accurate, but would not be appropriate as a request form in many situations.

c) The expression mother language is systemically possible but does not actually occur in the language.

d) The sentence This is the barn the corn the rat the dog the man owned chased ate was stored in  is grammatically accurate, but not psychologically feasible as a spontaneous utterance. The brain "can't cope" with formulating or decoding it in real time.

The term was coined by Hymes in extension of Chomsky’s definition of competence (which was purely systemic) to show that knowledge of systemic potential alone was not adequate to explain the ability to communicate effectively in a language.

His second category -  appropriacy - is of particular importance to us as language teachers as, in addition to controlling the systemic features of the language, our learners need to be aware of cross cultural differences between their own language and that of their interlocutors in terms of the way language is used, what is/isn't considered polite or appropriate in a given situation. For some examples of this, see the following articles In the Notebook :

Related Reading

Byram, M. Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence, Multilingual Mattters