La Rivista per l'insegnamento e l'apprendimento delle lingue

The Communicative Approach and its effect on the teaching of oral skills

Jean Rüdiger-Harper

The communicative approach which developed at the beginning of the 1970’s and has now permeated all branches of foreign language teaching, was in fact the indirect outcome of an academic debate between linguistic scientists on what language competence actually meant.
In the nineteen sixties the structuralist linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky coined the phrase competence to mean an idealised grammatical knowledge that he said all human beings have about their own mother tongue. He put forward the theory that with this knowledge the brain is in possession of a finite number of grammatical rules which can be used to generate an infinite number of unique utterances.
Chomsky differentiated between this “deep” knowledge or linguistic competence, and the way language is used in practice, which he called performance. However, his work concentrated purely on formal linguistic elements and did little to explain how human beings can use language to such great instrumental effect.
This omission caused other linguists and in particular, the sociolinguists Dell Hymes, William Labov and John Gumperz, to criticise Chomsky’s use of the term competence. The average native speaker of any language, they said “knows” a great deal more about how to use their language than merely how to construct grammatically correct sentences. Thus, the term communicative competence came into being.
At the same time as this debate was taking place, the growth of the European Common Market and the growing interdependence of western European countries was making functional foreign language learning for adults an ever more important concern. As a result, The Council of Europe had made it a priority to invest means and money in developing ways of making language learning more effective and relevant.
Applied Linguists began investigating and proposing new approaches, taking into account the research and debate going on amongst the theoreticians. Obviously, in these circumstances the linguistic/communicative competence debate could not fail to excite their attention. [...]

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