Friday, March 30, 2012

A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability (Integrated version)

[This is an integration of my old posts on "A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability". I'm currently thinking of revising this theory.]

September 8, 2007
JACET 46th Annual Convention
in Yasuda Women’s College,
Hiroshima, Japan

JACET symposium

English Education at the Tertiary Level
-- in Search of a Consistent Curriculum from Elementary School through University

Consistency and Diversity
-- A good understanding rather than a good test?--

Hiroshima University




1.1 Concept > Construct > Operational Definition > Measurement

Consistency should NOT mean the dominance of a paper-based standardized test because no paper-based test can capture the whole range of language knowledge and use. (Tests are only educated guesses of hypothetical constructs)

1.2 Understanding involves something immeasurable

Even a General English Proficiency Test may distort our understanding of communicative language ability because it only deals with readily measurable aspects of language and use.
Our understanding of second language communication goes beyond the notion of measurement.

"Oh, so you're not interested in communication, only language." (McNamara, 1996, p. 83)

The dog (our understanding) should wag the tail (a test).

Not the tail wagging the dog.

1.3 Education is more than measurable “objective” and contains immeasurable “aim”

“By objectives I mean the pedagogic intentions of a particular course of study to be achieved within the period of that course and in principle measurable by some assessment device at the end of the course” … “By aims I mean the purposes to which learning will be put after the end of the course.” (Widdowson, 1983, pp.6-7)

1.4 My contention

A good understanding of communicative language ability is more important than a good standardized test.

1.5 Expected results

A good understanding of communicative language ability would bring a good balance between consistency and diversity in curriculum.

Without it, English language education would end in uniformity and conformity, or in complete chaos.

Uniformity and conformity, particularly when harnessed by a standardized test, suppresses creativity and motivation of teachers and students.

Furthermore, neglecting diversity is to deny the different needs of different departments and colleges.


What is a good understanding of communicative language ability?

The understanding must be theoretically sound and simple enough to be a guideline for curriculum.


3.1 Descriptive approach

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment.

“Professor, your talk is too abstract and too general. Make it more specific!”

The opposite truth:
“Listen, your talk is too particular and too specific. Make it more abstract!”

A good theoretical understanding is also needed.

3.2 Theoretical approach

Development from Chomsky (1965) up to Bachman & Palmer (1996)

Problems in Bachman & Palmer (1996)
Not interactive enough
Mysterious 'strategic competence'
Obliterated 'psychophysiological mechanisms'


4.1 Addition of mindreading ability and physical ability to linguistic ability

Mindreading ability is involved in interaction.

Strategic competence can be demystified by the introduction of the mindreading ability.

The mindreading ability is a theoretical notion supported by “Theory of Mind” and “Relevance Theory” (To be explained later)

Making Physical ability more conspicuous: Linguistic and nonlinguistic physical ability.

4.2 A three-dimensional understanding of communicative language ability

4.3 Mindreading ability

4.3.1 Theory of Mind

According to Baron-Cohen (1997), Theory of Mind is an ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own, and, with that understanding, to explain and predict others' behavior.

Young children (under 3 or 4 years old) and autistic persons seem to lack Theory of Mind.

-> Theory of Mind is a basis of interpersonal communication.

4.3.2 Relevance Theory

"Given the particular nature and difficulty of the task, the general mind-reading hypothesis is implausible." "[Comprehension] might involve a sub-module of the mind-reading module, an automatic application of a relevance-based procedure to ostensive stimuli, and in particular to linguistic utterances." (Sperber and Wilson, 2002, pp.20-21)

The First, or Cognitive, Principle of Relevance:
"Human cognition is geared to the maximization of relevance."

"The relevance of an input for an individual at a given time is a positive function of the cognitive benefits that he would gain from processing it, and a negative function of the processing effort needed to achieve these benefits. (Sperber and Wilson 2002, p. 14)

In other words: The more benefit, the better: the less effort, the better. Strike a balance between the benefit and the effort for relevance.

The Second, or Communicative, Principle of Relevance
"Every utterance conveys a presumption of its own relevance."

Presumption of relevance

"The utterance is presumed to be the most relevant one compatible with the speaker's abilities and preferences, and at least relevant enough to be worth the hearer's attention." (Sperber and Wilson, 1986/1995, pp. 266-78. Emphasis added).

->Unlike the "knowledge of language" (Chomsky 1986), a speaker can increase her relevance by learning to do so. A better speaker can make a speech that produces more benefit with less effort on the part of the listener.

4.3.3 Mindreading ability

->Mindreading ability in communication is to anticipate other's mind and to infer the intention of the other successfully.

Mindreading ability in linguistic communication

->Mindreading ability in speaking and writing is for the speaker/writer to anticipate the listener's/reader's mind and to arrange words as the listener/reader would understand well, not as the speaker/writer would like to arrange.

->Mindreading ability in listening and reading is for the listener/reader to anticipate the speaker's/writer's mind and to understand his utterance as he meant it to be, not as the listener/reader would like to understand.

4.4 Physical ability

4.4.1. Linguistic physical ability

'Psychophysiological mechanisms' (Bachman 1990)

4.4.2. Non-linguistic physical ability

Body language (including indexical behaviors), tone of the voice, eye-contact, facial expression, etc.

4.5 Linguistic ability

Dual meaning of 'knowledge'
(1) 'usage' or 'conventions' as in 'language knowledge' by Bachman
(2) 'competence' as in 'knowledge of language' by Chomsky

4.5.1 Usage

Grammatical, textual, sociolinguistic, and functional

4.5.2 Competence

Underlying all the usages in language use

4.6 Interrelated independence of the three abilities

4.7 Different types of English Language Teaching

4.8 Coherence with the past theories


5.1 Innovating understanding

The standard assessment framework of accuracy, fluency and complexity cannot assess the mindreading ability, which is considered a basis of interpersonal communication or interaction.

Non-linguistic physical ability plays a very important role in actual communication, though it is usually dropped from the items of a paper-based standardized test.

Innovating our understanding of second language communication is crucial.

Imposition of a standardized test without a good understanding of second language communication is detrimental.

"Something that we know when on one asks us, but no longer know when we are supposed to give an account of it, is something that we need to remind ourselves of (and it is obviously something of which for some reason it is difficult to remind oneself.) " Wittgenstein (1953, Section 88)

5.2 Consistency and diversity

Consistency and diversity in curriculum should be maintained and developed through innovating our understanding of second language communication.

5.3 Remaining issues

'Emergence' in interaction
Literacy and written language.
Integrity and humanity
Why communicative language ability alone?


Bachman, L.F. (1990) Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford University Press.
Bachman, L.F. and A.S. Palmer (1996) Language testing in practice. Oxford University Press.
Baron-Cohen, S. (1997) Mindblindness. Bradford Books.
Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the theory of syntax. The MIT Press.
Chomsky, N. (1986) Knowledge of language. Praeger
McNamara, T.F. (1996) Measuring second language performance. Longman.
McNamara, T.F. (1997) 'Interaction' in second language performance assessment: Whose performance? Applied Linguistics, Vol. 18, No. 4. pp. 446-466.
Sperber and Wilson, (1986/1995) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Blackwell.
Sperber, D. and D. Wilson. (2002) "Pragmatics, modularity and mind-reading." In Mind & Language, Vol.17. Nos 1 and 2. pp. 3-23.
Widdowson, H.G. (1983) Learning purpose and language use. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical investigations. Blackwell.

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