What is linguistic competence?

commmunicative competence elt linguistic competence Aug 26, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

Hyme’s (1972) notion of communicative competence consists of four competences: linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse and strategic. Linguistic competence refers to the knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. Traditionally, English language teaching focused on mechanical grammar drills. This focus is influenced by the idea that grammar and vocabulary are the basic building blocks of a language. Other aspects of communication, such as culture and interpersonal relationships were neglected in this traditional model.

For most teachers and researchers, there is no question about the importance of grammar instruction. The question is whether this should be taught explicitly, or whether learners will absorb grammatical rules as they meet them in their exposure to English.

A holistic view

Linguistic competence is one of Hyme’s four competences, but the four competences are not separable into discrete elements. (Celce-Murcia, Dörnyei & Thurrell, 1995). For example, using appropriate vocabulary involves understanding and being aware of the context in which a particular communicative event is situated. An awareness of formality would allow a person to decide whether to use you guys, my friends or fellow teachers according to the context.

This understanding of linguistic competence implies that grammar and vocabulary should not be taught in isolation; instead, they should be introduced within themes and topics. For example, words, such as contaminate, domestic waste and toxic, can be introduced when discussing pollution.

Theory and practice

One of my favourite activities is introducing grammatical structures that are prevalent in a reading comprehension text, and designing speaking and writing activities that involve using the structures. For example, teachers can identify and draw learners’ attention to the use of simple present tense in a factual text that describes air pollution, and then ask them to use this when writing or speaking about a different factual topic. Advanced learners can be guided to identify some grammatical features of a text for themselves.

When selecting words for a vocabulary lesson, teachers should always present them in context. In other words, words should be selected from or related to a text that learners read or listen to. Follow-up activities should allow learners to use the words, either in speaking or writing activities. Spelling activities can maximise exposure to the words. In order to present these words in context in a spelling activity, teachers can read a sentence that has the target word followed by the word. For example, a teacher can read aloud, Toxic waste causes harm to the environment - toxic waste.


Celce-Murcia, M., Dörnyei, Z. & Thurrell, S. (1995). Communicative competence: A pedagogically motivated model with content specifications. Issues in Applied Linguistics, 6(2), 5-35.

Hymes, D. H. (1972). On communicative competence. In J.B. Pride & J. Holmes (Eds), Sociolinguistics: Selected readings (pp. 269-293). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Mohd KhairilX