Different Aspects of Communicative Competence

Communicative competence means knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. It also means understanding what others are saying in the language they are speaking in. A person competent in communication expresses his or her feelings and ideas in a way that promotes understanding and harmony.

Communicative competence involves many different skills that enable a person to relate well to other people. For example, a communicatively competent person knows how to politely correct someone making a mistake, how to greet someone, how to politely disagree with someone, and so on.

Communicative competence can be achieved in three aspects—structural, lexical, and socio-cultural.

The Structural Aspect

The structural aspect of communicative competence involves knowing the form of utter-ance to be used such as pronunciation and grammar. Speakers should pronounce words in such a way that they are not misunderstood by listeners. In English, this means understanding the differences between similar-sounding vowels such as the following:

A communicatively competent person understands the meaning and function of a grammatical construction. For instance, he would know that in the sentence, “John hit Carlo,” the doer is John and the receiver of the action is Carlo. Similarly, he or she must convey the correct meaning by producing well-formed or grammatical sentences.

Part of the structural aspect of communicative competence involves hearing words correctly, that is, a hearer must also distinguish between similarly sounding words. For instance, the words indigent and indigenous sound similar but they are different. Indi-gent means poor while indigenous means native to a particular land, usually belonging to a minority group. A person who thinks the word indigent is the word indigenous would be puzzled when someone says that many indigent people live in shanties along the Pasig River in Manila because he or she would think that the speaker is talking about indigenous people living in shanties along the Pasig River.

In the first scenario from the previous page, the reporter experiences embarrassment because he mispronounced the word corps as corpse resulting in a comical situation. A person must distinguish between similarly-sounding words as part of communicative competence.

The same thing is true for similarly sounding idioms. Idioms are expressions that have a special meaning that may not be related to the words that make them up. Some idioms may be similar but they have very different meaning. For instance, during a run up to a beauty pageant, one contestant became the object of laughter when she said that her co-contestant “passed away” (died). She should have said that her co-contestant “passed out” (lost consciousness) because of the stress brought by the pageant activi-ties. Many idiomatic expressions indeed sound similar. Understanding the difference between them is crucial in becoming competent in communication.

The Lexical Aspect

Communicative competence also involves properly understanding and using words, phrases, and idioms. In particular, several words can have similar meanings. Yet, each word has its own nuance, a subtle difference it has from other words with similar meaning. A speaker should know which word among them should be used in a particular situation. For example, although tall and high have similar meanings, they cannot be used interchangeably in different sentences.

In the example above, the words tall and high can be interchanged in the sentence, “She saw a _________ tower.” However, only tall can be used in the sentence, “She saw a __________ girl.” This shows that some words can go together with some particular words but not with others. The proper combination of words with other particular words is called collocation.

In the same way, a participant in a conversation must understand the difference between expressions that are similar. In the second scenario above, the listeners needed to know that the usual meaning of the phrase go down meaning, to go to a physically lower place, is not the same as the phrase go down the hall, which means to go further away along the hall from where the speaker is standing.

Understanding the Connotation of Words

More than having a dictionary meaning, a word produces feelings and images in the minds of hearers. The feelings, ideas, and images produced in the mind of a hearer depend on the culture and even in the experiences of that person. This is called connotation. Connotation can vary between cultures, groups of people, generations, and even between individuals.

As part of communicative competence, a speaker must use the word with appropriate connotation. The connotation of a word is not usually found in the dictionary. A speaker must be familiar with its use through constant exposure to the language. Take for example the following words:


The word girl when used to refer to an adult woman can have flirty meaning. Because of this, it is not proper to use it in common, polite situations. On the other hand, the word woman has no negative connotation and can be used for general reference to an adult human female, but using it to refer to a very young human female is inappropriate. In that case, the word girl is appropriate. The word lady has positive connotation of a woman having dignity and good reputation. It is ideal to use it in referring to an adult woman especially when the speaker wants to be polite. It can also be appropriately used to refer to a very young human female when joined with the word young to form the phrase young lady.

Using Proper Idioms

Communicative competence also requires the use of the appropriate idiom for a given situation. For instance, although the words evening and night have very similar meaning, the use of good night when meeting a person is inappropriate as a form of greeting at night. For this purpose the idiom good evening is used. Conversely, the use of good evening is inappropriate for bidding good-bye to someone. For this purpose, the idiom good night is appropriate to use. Knowing which idiom to use is best acquired by being exposed to situations where such idioms are used.

The Socio-Cultural Aspect

Perhaps the most important aspect of being competent at communication is the social aspect—relating well with people through words and even actions. Gautama Buddha once cautioned people to be careful with their words by saying, “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” The book of James in the Bible warns that words can cause a lot of destruction: “the tongue is a fire.”

Part of growing up for a person is to know what to say and what not to say in a given situation. For example, we are taught not to commit backbiting—saying negative things about a person when that person is not around. This is what we learn in our own culture. As the world grows closer, there is an ever-growing need to become more sensitive to becoming competent in communicating with people from a different cultural background. What may be acceptable in one culture may be impolite or offensive in another culture; on the other hand, what may be polite in one culture may be awkward in other cultures. For example, the use of sir and ma’am in addressing a colleague is considered polite in Filipino culture but it is awkward even when addressing your boss in countries like the US and Canada.

Part of being competent at the social aspect of communication involves understanding the different ways people use language. The following are just a few of the ways of speaking that a person must know as part of being competent in communication. They are commonly known as figures of speech:


J. Salinger says in The Catcher in the Rye, “I have to have this operation… It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.” Of course, all operations on the brain are very serious. When a person describes something less than what it actually is, then that person is using understatement. One purpose for using understatement is to assure or calm someone like when you tell a child with a seriously wounded knee that “it’s not so bad.” Another would be to show humility. For example, a person might say, “it’s nothing,” when people praise him or her for doing something great.


A person who is competent in communication must also understand the use of hyperbole. Hyperbole involves exaggerated expressions in order to produce emphasis. For example, when someone says, “we have been waiting for you for ages,” a communicatively competent person knows that this is hyperbole because the literal meaning is absurd.


A communicatively competent person must know when someone is being ironic. Ironic refers to saying the opposite of what you mean. In English, one possible lexical signal for being ironic is the word fine, such as in, “It’s a fine situation you got us into.” Usually, this is accompanied by a sing-song or up-and-down tune.

Competence in Specific Functions of Language

A person who is competent in communication knows and uses the proper forms used in specific language functions. He or she must know how to use polite expressions and be aware of impolite expressions related to language functions. Below are several functions of language. Each of them has different forms:

In order to have communicative competence, a person must understand which form to use depending on the elements involved in the situation such as differences in age, level of formality, closeness of the speaker and listener to each other, and other factors. For example, when a younger person makes a request of an older person and does not use the word please will likely be considered impolite. On the other hand, a much older person who uses a very polite form in talking to a younger person may produce awkwardness and confusion on the part of the listener. Also, using too formal forms when speaking in an informal situation is inappropriate. For example, it is too formal to use the word may when making a simple request in an informal situation.

Understanding Non-literal Use of Words or Expressions

A communicatively competent person must know when a word or expression is used metaphorically, that is, using them in a non-literal way. During her term as president, Corazon Aquino sued journalist Luis Beltran because he said the president “hid under the bed.” The journalist insisted that he was using the expression in a figurative way. Although the use of the expression “hid under the bed” may be disputable in this case, usually a person can know if a word or expression is being used metaphorically if the literal meaning is absurd or unreal.

Avoiding Topics or Unproductive Comments

Communicative competence also means that a person knows what topics to avoid. For example, it is not considered polite to ask a single person in his or her 30s the question, “Why are you still not married?” In some places such as the United States, it is impolite to ask a person about topics related to race such as, “What is your race?” or about HIV/AIDS and even about age.

Communicative competence also means that a person avoids unproductive comments. For instance, a speaker must avoid making very general comments about people based on religion (such as, “Muslims are prone to violence.”), culture (such as “Visayans are impolite.”), status (such as, “older, unmarried men have emotional problems.”), gender (such as, “women drivers are not good.”), or even age (such as,”teenagers are free-spirited.”). Such comments are not helpful because they produce stereotypes, particularly negative ones. Instead, a speaker must learn to qualify his or her comments and be sensitive to what effect they may have on others.

Understanding Nonverbal Cues

In addition to understanding spoken utterances, communicative competence involves understanding nonverbal expressions. A communicatively competent person must be sensitive to pauses, facial expressions, gestures, change of tone, and many other nonverbal cues. For instance, when a speaker pauses, it may mean he or she is unsure, ashamed, or uninterested in what is being talked about. Also, for a person to be competent in communication involves knowing what a tone or change of tone can mean seriousness, irony, sarcasm, getting offended, or many other things.