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Topic 1A – Language as communication: oral language and written language. Factors that define a communicative situation: transmitter, receiver, functions and context.

“ language as communication: oral and written language. Factors defining a communicative situation: listener, code, functionality and context “

In this unit we are going to study language and its major functions:

* We will show how Communication is one of these Functions.

* We will show how learning a language is not only a grammatical process but also a Social Process.

* We will also analyse the differences between Writing and Speech.

* We will discuss some important Communicative Theory defining their key factors.

* Finally, we will show how important it is to create Real Communication Situations in our Classrooms in order to improve language teaching.

A conclusion summing up what has been said throught the unit will follow, ending up with the bibliography used for the elaboration of this discussion.


We must point out that language is not just a “subject” in the sense of a package of knowledge. It is not just a set of information and insights. It is a fundamental part of being human. Traditional approaches used to treat a language as if it were a free-standing package of knowledge by analysing and observing it. Many of us learnt a language that way. But this process is a very abstract one and experience has shown that it does not appeal to everyone. To learn to use a language at all well for ourselves rather than for textbook purposes, most of us have to become involved in it as an experience. We have to make it a human event not just a set of information. We do this by using it for real communication, for genuine giving and receiving of messages.

* Now that we have introduced this particular topic we are going to deal with the study of language as Communication, its functions and the concept of communicative competence.

The word language has prompted many definitions. For example;

Sapir said that “ language is a purely human and non instinctive method of commicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols “.

Hall defined language as “ the institution whereby humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used oral-auditory symbols “

As we can see with these two definitions it is difficult to make a precise and comprehensive statement about formal and functional universal properties of language, so some linguists have tried to identify the various properties that are thought to be its essential defining characteristics.

The most widely acknowledged comparative approach has been that proposed by Charles Hockett. This set of 13 design features of communication using spoken language are as follows:

1. Auditory-vocal channel: sound is used between mouth and ear.

2. Broadcast transmission and directional reception: a signal can be heard by any auditory system within earshot and the source can be located using the ear’s direction finding.

3. Rapid fading: auditory signals are transitory.

4. Interchangeability: speakers of a language can reproduce any linguistic message they can understand.

5. Total feedback: speakers hear and can reflect upon everything they say.

6. Specialization: the sound waves of speech have no other functions than to signal meaning.

7. Semanticity: the elements of the signal convey meaning through their stable association with real world situations.

8. Arbitrariness: there is no depency between the element of the signal and the nature of the reality to which it refers.

9. Discreetness: speech uses a small set of found elements that clearly contrast with each other.

10. Displacement: it is possible to talk about events remote in space or time from the situation of the speaker.

11. Productivity: there is an infinitive capacity to express and understand meaning, by using old sentence elements to produce new elements.

12. Traditional transmission: language is transmitted from a generation to the next by a process of teaching and learning.

13. Duality of patterning: the sounds of language have no intrinsic meaning, but combine in different ways to form elements, such as words, that do convey meaning.

* After having studied the main properties of language, and communication, we will now see how the learning of a language involves a Social Process.

The most usual answer to the question of “why we use language” is to communicate our ideas, and this ability to communicate or communicative competence will be studied in the next part. But it would be wrong to think of communicating our ideas as the only aim for which language is used. Several other functions may be identified where the communications of ideas has a marginal or irrelevant consideration.

One of the most common uses of language, the expressive or emotional one, is a means of getting rid of our nervous energy when we are under stress, when we are angry, afraid, etc. We do not try to communicate because we can use language in this way whether we are alone or not.

Malinowski termed the third use of language we are studying Phatic Communication. He used it to refer to the social function of language, that is, to signal friendship or lack of enemity. Also, to maintain a comfortable relationship between people.

The fourth function we may find is based on Phonetic Properties. The persuasive cadences of political speechmaking, or the chants used by prisoners or soldiers have only one apparent reason: people take delight in them.

They can only be explained by a universal desire to exploit the sonic potential of language.

The fifth function is the Performative one. A performative is an utterance that performs an act. This use occurs in the naming of a ship at a launching ceremony, or when a priest baptises a child.

We can also find other functions such as:

– recording facts

– instrument of thought

– expression of regional, social, educational, sexual or occupational identity.

The British linguist Halliday grouped all these functions into three Metafunctions, which are the manifestations in the linguistic system of the two unique manifestation purposes which underline all uses of language, combined with the third component (textual) which breathes relevance into the other two.

1) The Idealistic Funtion: is to organise the speaker’s or writer’s experience of the real or imaginary world.

2) The Interpersonal Function: is to indicate, establish or maintain social relationships between people.

3) The Textual Function: which serves to create written or spoken texts which cohere within themselves and which fit the particular situation in which they are used.

Now we shall study the function of communication or what is named Communicative Competence.

Chomsky defined language as a set of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements. An able speaker has a subconcious knowledge of the grammer rules of his language which allows him to make sentences in that language. However, Dell Hymes thought that Chomsky had missed out some very important information:

The Rules Of Use. When a native speaks, he does not only utter grammatically correct forms, he also knows where and when to use the sentences and to whom.

For Hymes the Communicative Competence had four aspects:

1) Systematic Potential:

This means that a native speaker possesses a system that has a potential for creating a lot of language. This is similar to Chomsky’s competence.

2) Appropriacy:

This means that the native speaker knows what language is appropriate in a given situation, according to: setting, participants, purposes, channel and topic.

3) Occurence:

This means that the native speaker knows how often something is said in the language and acts accordingly.

4) Feasibility:

This means that a native speaker knows whether something is possible in the language.

These four categories have been adapted for teaching purposes. Thus, Real Decreto 1006/1991 of 14th June, which establishes the teaching requirements for Primary Education nation-wide, sees communicative competence as comprising five subcompetences:

1) Grammar Competence.

The ability to put into practice the system of grammar rules by which a language operates.

2) Sociolinguistic Competence.

The ability to produce appropriate utterances in different sociolinguistic contexts depending on contextual factors such as status of participants, purpose of the interaction….

3) Sociocultural Competence.

This is understood to be the knowledge of the social and cultural context in which the language is used.

4) Discourse Competence.

The ability to produce unified written or spoken discourse that shows coherence and cohesion in different types of texts.

5) Strategic Competence.

The ability to use verbal and non-verbal strategies to compensate for breakdowns in communication, or to improve the effectiveness of communication, as for example, the use of paraphrase, tone of voices or gestures.

On the other hand, Canale defined Discourse Competence as the aspect of communicative competence which describes the ability to produce unified written or spoken discourse that shows coherence and cohesion and which conforms to the norms of different genres.

* Up to this point we have studied the concept of language as means of communication, amongst other functions.

Now, let us move onto another important aspect of this unit, which deals with the main differences between writing and speech.

Before summarising the main differences between spoken and written language we will outline their main features independantly.

On the one hand we have spoken language, which is the most obvious aspect of language. Speech is not essential to the definition of an infinitely productive communication system, such as is constituted by language. But, in fact, speech is the universal material of language. Man has almost certainly been a speaking animal. The earliest known systems of writing go back perhaps some 5000 years. This means that for many hundreds of thousands of years human languages have been transmitted and developed entirely as a spoken means of communication.

The description and classification of speech sounds is the main aim of phonetics. Sounds may be identified with reference to their production, their transmission and their reception. These three activities occur at the physiological level, which implies the action of muscles and nerves. The motor nerves that link the speaker’s brain with his speech mechanism activate the corresponding muscles. The movements of the tongue, lips, vocal chords, etc, constitute the articulatory stage of the speech chain, and the area of phonetics that deals with it is articulatory phonetics.

The movement of the articulation produces disturbances in the air pressure called sound waves which are physical manifestations. This is the acoustic stage of the chain, during which the sound waves travel towards the listener’s ear. These sound waves activate the listener’s ear drum.

On the other hand we have written language which evolved independently at different times in several parts of the world.

We can classify writing systems into two types:

1) Non-Phonological Systems.

These do not show a clear relationship between the symbols and the sounds of the language. They include the pictographic, ideagraphic, uniform and Egyptian hieroglyphics and logographics.

2) Phonological Systems.

These do show a clear relationship between the symbols and the sounds of language. We can distinguish between syllabic and alphabetic systems.

In a syllabic system each grapheme corresponds to a spoken syllable. Alphabetic writing establishes a direct correspondance between graphemes and phonemes.

In a perfect regular system there is one grapheme for each morpheme. However, most alphabets in present day use fail to meet this criteria. At one extreme we find such languages as Spanish, which has a very regular system; at the other we find such cases as English and Gaelic where there is a marked tendency to irregularity.

Now let’s study the main differences between writing and speech. The most obvious is the contrast in physical form.

Speech uses phonic substance typically in the form of air-pressure movements, whereas writing uses graphic substance, typically in the form of marks on a surface. As writing can only occasionally be thought of as an interaction, we can establish the following points of contrast:

1) The permanence of writing allows repeated reading and close analysis. The spontaneity and rapidity of speech minimises the chance of complex pre-planning, and promotes features that assisst speakers to think standing up.

2) The participants in written interaction cannot usually see each other, so they cannot make clear what they mean. However, in speech interactions feedback is possible.

3) The majority of graphic features presents a system of contrasts that has no speech equivalent. Many genres of written language, such as tables, graphs and complex formulae, cannot be conveyed by reading aloud.

4) Some contructions may only be found in writing, others only occur in speech, such as in slang and swear words.

5) Finally we can say that writing tends to be more formal and so it is more likely to provide the standard that society values. Its performance provides it with a special status.

Despite these differences, the written and spoken language have mutually interacted in many respects. We normally use the written language in order to improve our command of vocabulary, active or passive, spoken or written.

Loan words may come into a country in a written form, and sometimes everything we know about a language is from its written form eg: Latin. It is true that writing has derived from speech in an historical sense, but nowadays their independance is mutual.

* Now we have examined the differences between speech and written language

we shall concentrate on the theory of communication, and those factors defining a communicative act.

According to Ivor Armstrong Richards, “communication takes place when one mind so acts upon its environment that another mind is influenced, and in that other mind an experience occurs which is like the experience in the first mind, and is caused in part by that experience.”

From this definition we can conclude that any communicative act necessarily happens among persons or between a person who acts as a speaker and a listener or between various people who act as receivers. Besides these people there are other elements in a communicative act:

* The Message

The content of information that the speaker sends to the listener.

* The Channel

The place through which the message flows.

* The Code

A limited and moderately wide group of signs which combine according to certain rules known by the speaker and by the listener.

* The Context

The situation in which the speaker and the listener are in, which sometimes helps to interpret the message.

* As we have seen communication is the exchange of meanings through a common system of symbols. Now it is time to ask ourselves:

“What does communication in the classroom imply ?”

Many studies of classroom language have shown that in most native speaker ? is used for function rather than for direct teaching. These extra functions include: greetings, discussion, health, attendance,the weather and so on.

Barnes (1969), in his description of classroom language, labelled these functions “social”. Social interaction also takes placein foreign language and 2nd language classrooms, but in many such classrooms native language is used for this purpose.

Fanselow (1977) attempted to set up a system for observing and recording different types of communication in the language classroom. He established five headings in the form of questions:

1) Who communicates ?

2) What is the pedagological purpose of the communication ?

3) What mediums are used to communicate content ?

4) How are the mediums used ?

5) What areas of content are communicated ?

All of these questions are useful in thinking how language is used in the classroom.

The first of these areas, Language, concerns those times when a teacher is explaining or illustrating the language, or when the pupils are asking questions about the language, or practising pronunciation or structures. In most English language classes, this part of the lesson is conducted in English.

The second, Procedure, concerns those times when the teacher is managing the classroom, explaining what to do next, how to do it and so on. Some teachers use English for classroom management, and others use the children’s mother tongue, at least during the early stages.

The third of Fanselow’s categories, Subject Matter, concerns those times when the language is being used to convey some specific topic as a part of a lesson. For example, if the teacher tells the story “The Frog Got Lost”, the subject matter is the frog and its adventures. In this case the teacher’s aim might be to illustrate the use of the past simple tense, but the content area of language used in that part of the lesson is not tense but the tale of the frog. In the language classroom, this part of the lesson would be conducted in English.

The final content category identified by Fanselow, Life, concerns communication between teacher and pupils about Real Life Matters, not directly about the lesson. This category embraces the type of questioning that Barnes called “social” as well as any other type of communication about the real world.

Thus, for example, if the teacher directs a particular student to “open the window” or asks another who has nothing to write on “Where is your notebook?”, or genuinely asks another “Is your brother in the football match on Saturday?”, then he/she is using language about the real world that is part of the learner’s direct experience. This is a great opportunity for real communication in the English classroom through English. When speaking to children in English, it is important, as it is when they are learning their first language, to support communication through the use of gesture, facial expression and action because this gives children clues to the meaning of what they hear and so draws their attention to and helps them to become familiar with the sounds, rhythm and stress of the second language.

Strategies that parents use intuitively to draw children into the use of the first language must be used deliberately by the teachers to draw children into using the second language. Research has shown that parents generally speak more slowly, articulate more carefully, and use gesture, facial expression and tone when talking to young children to aid their understanding and to encourage them to produce.


To conclude, we could bear in mind that an important aspect of interaction in the English classroom is that it must be managed by the learners as well as by the teacher. That is to say that learners must be confident enough to initiate communication in English, and not merely respond when they are addressed by the teacher. A pupil that has something to say, an apology or a request to make, a question to ask, a greeting to give, should be encouraged to express him/herself in English. If resources are not to be wanted and opportunities to be missed, children must learn English in the same way they learnt their mother tongue, as a living language that can be used for active communication as much as for establishing personal relationships.


The bibliography used for the elaboration of this topic is as follows:

* “Teaching the Spoken Language” by Gillian Brown and George Yule C.U.P. 1997.

* “Teaching English to Children” by Christopher Brumfit, Jayne Moon and Ray Tongue. Longman 1992.

* “Teaching English in the Primary Classroom” by Susan Halliwell. Longman 1992.