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
















Traditionally, theories of language have concentrated on the study of its different components in isolation, such as grammar, semantics, phonology, seeing language as a system that included all of them. However, when language is first acquired in childhood, is merely by means of communicating with the people around. In this sense, new approaches in the last third of the 20th C, paid attention to language as communication.

We, as human beings, need to communicate, and as most of us live in a literary society, we normally use oral and written language to transmit or receive information. As far as oral communication is concerned, most human beings speak using oral language in order to exchange information and interact with other people, but the use of oral language entails the knowledge of certain particular elements, norms, routines, formulae and strategies that are put into work when we are in conversations.

On the other hand, writing and reading require formal instruction, and children face a series of difficulties when learning these skills, because they have to comfort oral to written discourse, adapting rules, learning spelling, dividing speech chains into chunks called words, etc.

However, learning to write and read is probably the most fundamental step in education, because is the basis for future instruction and access to many fields of knowledge. In this unit, we are going to review the main characteristics of oral and written language, and then we will analyse the factors that define a communicative situation, namely the sender and the receiver of the message, the functionality and the context.


Among the various definitions distinguishing humanity from other created think is that of man as the talking animal. The implications of this fact are at the centre of research in the linguistic science in the last decades.

This innate and infinite capacity the human being has for language is important to know the nature both of language and of human beings. Obviously, trying to clarify what language is a basic prerequisite to establish a valid frame of communication as we are going to see.


OXFORD ADVANCE LEARNERS DICTONARY: Human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, feelings and desires by means of a system of sound symbols.

From a psycholinguistic approach to the topic, language is what distinguishes man from other primates, as Atkinson remarks in her work the articulate Mammal.


The language is, according to Halliday, an essentially social an inter-organism activity. The sociolinguistic approach to language is concerned with what is involved in looking at his language people really use, in different places, for different purposes, in different social and personal contexts. It is also concerned with the mutual relations that can be seen to exist between different human social situations and different varieties of a language.

Another definition of communication considers it is the exchange of meanings between individuals through a common system of symbols and which has been of concern to countless scholars since the time of ancient Greece.

The English literary critic and author I.A. Richards offered one of the first and in many ways still the best, definitions of communication:

Communication takes place when one mind so acts upon the environment that another mind is influenced , and in the other mind an experience occurs which is like the experience in the first mind , and is caused in part by that experience.

Important aspects of this definition are the interactive character of communication, which is very important to understand the different parts of this theme. It is also important to remark that Richards’s definition separates the content of the messages from the processes in human affairs by which these messages are transmitted.


To understand the communication process it is important to understand that a language does not happen in vacuum. Rather, the idea we have of language is related to our knowledge and observation of, and participation in, actual occurrences of language: language events or speech acts. A language event has three aspects:

-SUBSTANTIAL: it is the transmission of language by means of audible sound waves or visible marks on a surface. That is, the substance of the language can be phonic or graphic.

-FORMAL OR FORM: it is the internal meaningful structure of the language.

-SITUATIONAL: language events do not take place isolated from other aspects of human behaviour. On the contrary, and according to Halliday, the take place in situations which are the environment in which text comes to life. These are relevant extra-textual circumstances, linguistic and non-linguistic.

The most usual answer to the question “why do we use language?” is “to communicate our ideas”. But it would be wrong to think that communicating our ideas is the only purpose for which we use language. Several other functions may be identified where the communication of ideas is marginal or irrelevant. We hardly find verbal messages that would fulfil only one function, although the verbal structure of a message depends primarily on the predominant function;


Among all the communication codes which are used by human beings (music, kinesics, sign language), written and oral language is the most efficient for the transmission and reception of information, thoughts, feelings and opinions. In addition, these linguistic codes are exclusively human and make us distinct from animals. But written and oral language are different processes: whereas we learn to write through a formal instruction, speaking and listening come naturally along different stages of the child’s evolution.

Therefore we can say that oral language comes first in our history as individuals. Therefore, speech and writing are not alternative processes, but rather we must consider them counterparts: all oral language should have a good representative system in a written form.

From a psychological point of view, oral communication is a two-way process in which both speaker (encoder) and hearer (decoder) must be present in the same situational context at a particular time and place (unless we talk about special cases of oral communication such as phone conversations). The functions of oral communication are, as we said before, to communicate or exchange our ideas or to interact with other people. Unlike written communication, in oral interaction we can monitor the reactions of the hearer through the feedback so that we can our speech in the course of the communication, as well as use different linguistic and non-linguistic features (gesturing, intonation…) to make our messages clearer. However, as it takes place in a particular place and time, the interlocutors have to make their contributions at a high speed, without much time to think, unlike writing.

Along history, the study of spoken language has not much tradition, unlike written language, due to several reasons:

It was considered a secondary type of language as it was not reserved only to cultivate people. Unlike written language, there was a lack of permanent records of oral language during our past history. It presents more mutability in the understanding and interpretation of what it is said than in written lg.

Halliday was among the first linguists to study oral language, saying that it was not a formless and featureless variety of written language. Since then, there has been an increasing interest to which it has contributed the inventions of audio, video and computer devices. In oral communication, we distinguish two different types:

Prepared speech: The formal setting is organised as writing (syntax, lexis & discourse organisation) it is memorised or written down before (lectures, speech, oral poetry)

Spontaneous speech: Speaker has not thought or memorised the message beforehand. It may present inaccuracies, hesitations, silences and mistakes

As spontaneous speech is the main form of oral communication, and directly reflects real communication processes with different demands and situations, and prepared speech does not allow for feedback and monitoring, the analysis and study of oral communication should concentrate on spontaneous speech, where the negotiation of meaning plays an important role for the communication purpose to be correctly achieved.

But because of its pervasive and everyday nature, its scientific study has proved particularly complex. It has been difficult to obtain acoustically clear, natural samples of spontaneous conversation, especially of its more informal varieties. When samples have been obtained, the variety of topics, participants, and social situations which characterise conversation have made it difficult to determine which aspects of the behaviour are systematic and rule-governed.


Linguistic elements

STRESS When we talk we have to bear in mind there is a regular distribution of accents along words and sentences. However, if we want to give special emphasis to a particular word or phrase, we change that regular pattern of stress and accent in order to make more prominent what we want.

RHYTHM it is the relationship we make between accents (chunks of words) and silences. Rhythm can range from very monotonous one (in quick or prepared speech) to rhythm with contrasts in order to give expressiveness and sense to our speech. Pauses are also important, because sometimes are made to divide grammatical units and other times are unpredictable and caused by hesitations.

INTONATION is the falling and rising of voice during speech. Any departure from what it is considered “normal” intonation shows special effects and expresses emotions and attitudes. Normally, falling tones show conclusion and certainty, whereas rising tones may show in conclusion or doubt (I’ll do it / I’ll do it…)

Paralinguistic elements

We cannot consider oral verbal communication without remembering that the whole body takes part. In fact, many times, a person can express sympathy, hostility or incredulity by means of body and facial gestures. This “body language” is normally culturally related & is learnt the same way as verbal behaviour is learnt, although it allows for spontaneity and creativity: we use head, face, hands, arms, shoulders, fingers…

Other linguistic features that characterise conversational language are:

Speed of speech is relatively rapid; there are many assimilations & elisions of letters; compressions of auxiliary sequences (going to); it can be difficult to identify sentence boundaries in long loose passages; informal discourse markers are common ( you know, I mean); great creativity in the vocabulary choice, ranging from unexpected coinage (Be unsad) to use of vague words (thingummy).


Written communication is a type of communication, and as such, its main purpose is to express ideas and experiences or exchange meanings between individuals with a particular system of codes, which is different to that used in oral communication. In written communication, the encoder of the message is the writer and the decoder and interpreter of the message is the reader, and many times, this interpretation does not coincide with the writer’s intended meaning.

When we write, we use graphic symbols, which relate to the sounds we make when we speak. But writing is much more than the production of graphic symbols, just as speech is more than the production of sounds: these symbols have to be arranged, according to certain conventions, to form words, and words to form sentences. These sentences then have to be ordered and linked together in certain ways, forming a coherent whole called text.

Since classical times, there have been two contradictory approaches to speech and writing: firstly, the view that writing is the primary and speech the secondary medium, because writing is more culturally significant and lastingly valuable than speech; and secondly, the view that speech is primary and writing secondary because speech is prior to writing both historically and in terms of a child’s acquisition of language. But leaving aside this dichotomy, the first thing we must notice is that speech and writing are not alternative processes: speech comes first, but writing demands more skill and practice, and they have different formal patterns.

Most important of all, however, is that written and spoken language is counterparts: a writing system should be capable of representing all the possible wordings of a person’s thoughts. This implies that both systems could be regarded as the two sides of the same coin.

From a psychological point of view, writing is a solitary activity, the interlocutor is not present, and so we are required to write on our own, without the interaction or the help of the feedback usually provided in oral communication. That is why we have to compensate for the absence of some linguistic features which help to keep communication going on in speech, such as prosody and paralinguistic devices such as gesturing, intonation, etc. Our texts are interpreted by the reader alone, and we cannot monitor his or her reactions, unlike the speaker: we have to sustain the whole process of communication and to stay in contact with our reader through words alone, and this is why we must be very clear and explicit about our intentions when we write.

However, not all the advantages are on the side of the oral communication: in writing, we normally have time to think about what we are trying to express, so that we can revise it and re-write it, if need be, and the reader, to understand a text, can also read and re-read it as many times as wanted.


Following Jacobson, we agree that language must be investigated in all the variety of its functions, but an outline of these functions demands a concise survey of the constitutive factors in any act of verbal communication: the ADDRESSER sends a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE that to be operative requires a CONTEXT referred to and to be grasped by the addressee (either verbal and situational, a CODE, fully or partially common to the addresser and addressee, and a CONTACT, a physical channel and psychological connection enabling them to enter and stay in communication


The sender in the process of communication is the person who send the message to the receiver.

The receiver is the person or persons who get the message conveyed by the sender.

A message is put together with a purpose , whether or not the sender is fully aware of what this is.

The context is the physical or social situation in which communication takes place , it will always affect how the message is understood , and will probably affect how it is put together.

The channel/form , the message has to be put into some form such as speech or pictures.

The term medium is often used in a general way to describe a means of communication.

The message is what the sender means and what the receiver thinks the sender has said.

The feedback is the response one gets from sending a message and the adjustment made because of that response.

If we encode a message , we put into a code , which will be decoded by the receiver or audience.

The conventions are the unwritten rules that govern the use of forms of communication. Life is full of conventions about how we communicate in certain situations with certain people , as well as how we should lay out and use written formats.

All forms of communication that we use are made up of signs , and together these make up the message in communication. Signs are like words or gestures.

The code , it is fact difficult to avoid saying something about codes-sets of signd organized by rules conventions


If the main purpose of our use of language is to communicate our ideas, concentrating on the context to which these ideas refer to, then we are dealing with the referential or ideational function.

If there is a direct expression of the addresser’s attitude toward what is being communicated, tending to produce an impression of a certain emotion, that is the emotive or expressive function (also very common), which differs from the referential one in the sound pattern, and it flavours to some extend all our utterances.

If we orientate our message towards the addressee because we want a certain reaction, we are dealing with the conative function, syntactically and often phonetically deviate from other functions (vocatives and imperatives).

We talk about the phatic function when the language we use is for the purpose of establishing or maintaining social relationships, to check if the channel or contact works, to attract or confirm the attention of the interlocutor or to discontinue communication, rather than to communicate ideas, and is normally displayed by ritualised formulas (Well…, How do you do?).

If we use the language to talk about the language, such as when checking if addressee is using the same code as the addresser (Do you follow me? Do you know what I mean?), we talk of the metalingual function.

If, on the contrary, the focus is on the phonetic properties of the message, although not being the sole function of the message, we say that we are using the poetic function of language.

To end up, we will say that Halliday grouped all the functions into three interrelated metafunctions: ideational, to express ideas or experiences, the interpersonal to indicate, establish or maintain social relationships, and the textual, to create written or spoken texts that fit in the particular situation in which they are used.


There are five categories of communication. There are : intrapersonal , interpersonal , group , mass and extrapersonal.

Intrapersonal communication

It is concerned with the needs which motivate us and the way in which we communicate according to the notions of self which we have. How we think of ourselves affects how we communicate.

Interpersonal communication

It is concerned with perception , with the use of non-verbal behaviour , and with the ways we present ourselves.

Group communication

It deals with in constructive and obstructive behaviour in groups , with role and its effect on groups , with informal and formal group experience.

Mass communication

It deals with the media : the press , the radio, the television.

Extrapersonal communication.

It refers to direct communication with anything other than another person.(A.I. , animals…)


The external environment in which the language events take place is of overall importance for its understanding. This external environment or context includes a series of variables which greatly affect the message such as situational aspects , social aspects, the knowledge of the world or culture which should be shared by the speakers if the communication is going to flow smoothly. All this give to the message or text its texture.

Texture is marked rather by the meaning relations which are to be expected in a given context of a situation than by a kind of structural continuity.

The context of situation has for Halliday , three components , corresponding to the three metafunctions:

The ideational function is related to the field. The field is the kind of activity within which the language is playing some part. It corresponds to the ideational function or what we are speaking about.

The interpersonal metafunctions is related to the tenor. The tenor is the actors involved in creating the text.

The textual function is related to the mode or channel… The channel is the relationship between the particular functions assigned to language and its rhetorical channel.

The social context imposes rules of linguistic and extra linguistic behaviour according to the role of the speaker in the speech situation. It is very important in communication in order to avoid misunderstandings and non-desirable reactions on the part of any of the participants in the speech.

The context of culture is the context against which the meaning of the message is interpreted, and it includes the way of addressing, the relationship between speakers and the mode of communication (the field, the tenor and the mode)


We are going to begin by define the different aspect that constitute communicative competence according to Canale and Swain , in order to be able to organize our study of the main linguistic skills in a way that is coherent with the needs of acquiring C.C in English.


When trying to define grammatical competence it is a must to mention CHOMSKY because he was the first to speak about competence and performance in the 60,s, taking as a basis the distinction that DE SAUSSURE had made between language and parole. CHOMSKY has done a lot of research, which has eventually led to the concept of communicative competence. As we understand it nowadays.


HALLIDAY, who started from CHOMSKY´S views, but taking into account language in its social perspective. HALLIDAY, on his turn, is interested in language in use in the functions realised by speech.

According to this theory language functions are formal features of language, which enable communication to take place.

HALLIDAY rejects the distinction between competence and performance, as being of no use to study the sociological aspects of language and he developed a socio-semantic approach to language and language in use, trying to explain the relationships between language events and social context.

In this approach, he includes the notion of language potential, which is the set of options in meaning that are available both to listener and speaker. This implies that the speaker have behaviour options which he translates linguistically as semantic options, encoded in linguistic forms.


As far as HYMES is concerned, he criticises CHOMSKY because his notion of competence does not account for the sociocultural dimension of language, which is something CHOMSKY left out on purpose, for the methodological reasons.

HYMES, on the contrary, posits that to establish the idea of C.C. we need to know whether something is formally possible .If something is feasible, according to our means and whether it is appropriate in relation to a context, we should also take into account whether it is done and what its doing implies.

That is , according to Hymes , C.C. implies:

a)Grammatical ability to use what is formally possible

b)Psycholinguistic ability to use what is feasible.

c) Sociocultural ability to use what is contextually appropriate.


Current research has shown that communication cannot de understood unless we move away from the sentence level and try to understand language at discourse level , however complex it may result.

According to this , discourse competence would be the ability , which enables us to interpret individual message elements in terms of their relationship with the full text.

Also includes understanding lexical cohesion devices in context as well as grammatical cohesion devices in order to notice the cohesion of the different genres.

On the other hand it also comprises it also comprises grasping oral discourse patterns as well as written discourse pattern to be able to notice coherence in different genres.


Strategic competence is related to current interest in the cognitive devices through which we apprehend reality:

Related to strategic in so far as it is relevant for communication we should mention the following devices:

a)The use of reference sources

b)Grammatical and lexical paraphrase

c)Requests for repetition

d)Use of non-verbal language

E) Use of a single grammatical form

F) Use of the most sociolinguistic neutral form when we are not sure.

G) Use of the first language knowledge as an aid

H) Use of non-verbal symbols or emphatic stress or intonation to provide cohesion and coherence.

I) Use of pause filters and turn-taking devices.

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