Communicative Competence

Topics: Linguistics, Grammar, Noam Chomsky Pages: 32 (11426 words) Published: December 6, 2011

On Communicative

Dell Hymes

This paper is theoretical. One connotation of "theoretical" is "programatic"; a related connotation is that one knows too little about the subject to say something practical. Both connotations apply to this attempt to contribute to the study of the "language problems of disadvantaged children". Practical work, however, must have an eye on the current state of theory, for it can be guided or misguided, encouraged or discouraged, by what it takes that state to be. Moreover, the language development of children has particular pertinence just now for theory. The fundamental theme of this paper is that the theoretical and the practical problems converge. It is not that there exists a body of linguistic theory that practical research can turn to and has only to apply. It is rather that work motiyated by practical needs may help build the theory that we need. To a great extent programs to change the language situation of children are an attempt to apply a basic science that does not yet exist. Let me review the present stage of linguistic theory to show why this is so. Consider a recent statement, one that makes explicit and precise an assumption that has underlain much of modern linguistics (Chomsky, 1965, p. 3): Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of atten­ tion and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance.

From the standpoint of the children we seek to understand and help, such a statement may seem almost a declaration of irrelevance. All the difficulties that confront the children and ourselves seem swept from view. One's response to such an indication of the state of linguistic theory might be to ignore fundamental theory and to pick and choose among its products. Models of



language structure, after all, can be useful in ways not envisioned in the statements of their authors. Some linguists (e.g., Labov, Rosenbaum, Gleitman) use transforma­ tional generative grammar to study some of the ways in which a speech community is not homogeneous and in which speaker-listeners clearly have differential know­ ledge of a language. Perhaps, then, one ought simply to disregard how linguists define the scope of "linguistic" theory. One could point to several available models of language - Trager-Smith-Joos, tagnemic, stratificational, transformational­ generative (in its MIT, Pennsylvania, Harvard and other variants), and, in England, "system-structure" (Halliday and others); remark that there are distinguished schol­ ars using each to analyse English; regret that linguists are unable to agree on the analysis of English; and pick and choose, according to one's problem and local situation, leaving grammarians otherwise to their own devices. To do so would be a mistake for two reasons: on the one hand, the sort of theoretical perspective quoted above is relevant in ways that it is important always to have in mind; on the other hand, there is a body of linguistic data and problems that would be left without theoretical insight, if such a limited conception of linguistic theory were to remain unchallenged. The special relevance of the theoretical perspective is expressed in its representat­ ive anecdote (to use Kenneth Burke's term), the image it puts before our eyes. The image is that of a child, born with the ability to master any language with almost miraculous ease and speed; a child who is not merely molded by conditioning and reinforcement, but who actively proceeds with the unconscious theoretical interpretation of the speech that comes its way, so that in a few years and with a finite experience, it is master of an infinite ability, that of producing and under­ standing...

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