Published: 18th September 2021
English Blues: Developing communicative competence over grammatical competence
Many English language teachers’ obsession with grammar teaching and insistence on grammatical competence have killed learners’ curiosity and interest in learning English effectively
Friend: How do you react when you come across a Facebook post that has some grammatical errors?
Me: I admire the person who posted it for their desire and courage to communicate. It is not perfection but communication that matters.
Recently, a regular reader of this column emailed me this query: “Do native speakers of English make grammatical errors when they speak? What types of mistakes do they make?” I sent him a reply with these questions: “When you speak with someone in your mother tongue, do you make grammatical mistakes? What types of mistakes do you make? Do people who you speak to notice your errors and try to correct you?” Having clearly understood what I had implied in my reply, he wrote back to me: “Probably, when native speakers make mistakes, the errors are either not serious enough to be considered errors or they do not affect the effect of communication.”
When someone makes grammatical errors in our mother tongue, we neither laugh at nor correct the person who uses the language. Unfortunately, when someone mispronounces some words or makes errors in English, which is not our native language, we look down on the person. What a shame! Lack of proficiency in English is equated with a lack of intelligence or education. Recently, Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya was trolled for his grammatically incorrect tweet. A large number of politicians including leaders of Opposition parties hit back at those who trolled the union minister.
Even some great speakers make grammatical mistakes when they speak. Their speeches are so powerful and engaging that the audience does not notice the errors. The fact is that not all great speakers of English have grammatical competence (GC). It refers to the knowledge of a language (knowledge of words, rules of morphology, syntax, grammar and phonology). They do not know the definitions of any grammatical terms nor do they know the rules of grammar. Do they need to know all grammar rules in order to communicate effectively? No. Do we know the definitions of grammatical terms in our native language? No. Then why do teachers of English expect learners of English as a second language to be familiar with grammatical terms and rules of grammar?
I have come across numerous students who define grammatical terms accurately and score well in grammar tests. Don’t we expect such students to speak well in different situations? Pathetically, most of them are not able to communicate effectively in different social situations. The main reason is that they have been trained to focus on improving their grammatical competence but not on their communicative competence. Many English language teachers’ obsession with grammar teaching and insistence on grammatical competence have killed learners’ curiosity and interest in learning English effectively.
Which is more important: grammatical competence or communicative competence? Undoubtedly, it is communicative competence. In 1980s the communicative approach to language teaching was developed as a reaction to grammar-based approaches. The main objective of this approach is to help learners use the target language confidently, fluently and appropriately in real situations. Here are some characteristics of the approach: i) Meaning is more important than form (structure). ii) Fluency is more important than accuracy. iii) All the four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing – are taught in an integrated manner. iv) Grammar is taught implicitly and in context.
Effective communication is a key skill in the twenty-first century. It is the responsibility of language teachers to help learners become effective communicators. Grammar matters but it isn’t everything. Communicative competence is more important than mere grammatical competence. Teachers, awake! Please don’t bombard your students with grammatical terms and rules. Instil confidence in them and develop their communicative ability.