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Linguistics and the Vitality of Communicative Competence

By Edited Dec 29, 2013 0 0

Communicative competence, essentially meaning the ability to effectively use language to interact with others, is absolutely vital to the continuity of human progression. For language is the common denominator to relay ideas that pertain to the individual’s present thought—in turn, reflecting identifying traits such as cultural background, bias, and one’s self-perception of worth. Concurrently, the linguistic narrator must also determine his or her expectations of the audience’s preexistent knowledge of various topics—establishing a frame, the evocation for a concept, that delicately balances presumed mutual understandings and the need for clarification of less prevalent assertions. For example, if an adult recounts in present-day Western society amongst other adults, “I took my dog for a walk today,” there is no need to clarify any background information since it is assumed that everyone has partaken in or at least observed such an instance; in contrast, if the same adult were to state, “I disagree with Socrates’ understanding of metaphysical reality,” surely the speaker should feel the need to elaborate as it is not presumed that everyone in a casual social setting has studied the theories of Ancient Greek philosophers. As a result of the control that the narrator has in determining the effectiveness of a recount, regardless of whether the topic may be solving the problems of the human condition in a literary thesis or merely describing one’s morning, the performance is generally judged and perceived as a reflection of the narrator’s linguistic ability to relate his or her subjective interpretation of a topic to a broader audience.  Therefore, communicative competence is interestingly directly correlated to metacommunicative interdependence between speaker and audience—dictated by the stimuli that encompasses all of the particularities of the setting(s). Overall, comprehending communicative competence can be facilitated through further analysis of framing and performance; specifically, acknowledging the dualistic nature of framing, cultural authenticity, subjectivity of speaker and audience, and the power of performance in a contemporary situation are at the forefront of revealing the tenets of the relationship between frame, performance, and communicative competence.

            Beginning with the dualistic nature of framing, the main idea behind this premise is that humans have the ability to manipulate traditional signal processing in order to communicate in a socially accepted manner. Highlighting this ability, Gregory Bateson writes, “…this brief digression will serve to illustrate a stage of evolution—the drama precipitated when organisms, having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, discover that their signals are signals” (Bateson 1955: 316). In other words, signals are merely perceptive signals—the context of the situation actually entails whether the signals are, for example, genuine, sarcastic, or dishonest. And rather than simply interpreting signals as always straightforward, humans have ceased to respond automatically to signals—partially due to human capabilities and partially due to external societal development. One such example that Bateson cites is the masking of sexual odor through the implementation of deodorant; as opposed to assuming that someone has a unique, pleasant odor, humans perceive the smell of deodorant and, through the progression of framing enhanced by the marketing media, comprehend that the smell is a byproduct of human development for the convenience of the majority (Bateson 1955: 316-316). Furthermore, other animals also manipulate stimuli to perform mutually acceptable acts—such as when monkeys participate in combat that is distinctively “not combat” (Bateson 1955: 317). The seemingly paradoxical relationship between ‘combat’ and ‘not combat’ exemplifies how many organisms can effectively communicate amongst each other—regardless of what raw stimuli suggests. In the aforementioned case, the monkeys realize that it is possible to act in a dually combative and playful way—resulting in no harm and a mutually understood enjoyment for both parties. However, humans also run the risk of over-manipulating stimuli in order to fulfill how they think something should be explained rather than assessing a performance objectively. For instance, Dennis Tedlock sardonically notes in response to how many contemporary critics perceive Western literature as “highly realistic” while tribal, non-Western writings are perceived as “primitive,” “…when we encounter gross and un-explained distortions of reality in [William Butler] Yeats, for example, we are apt to call them not ‘primitive’ but ‘dream-like’ or ‘mystical’ and to regard them as highly poetic” (Tedlock 1983: 129-130). Accordingly, narrator and audience alike are challenged with having to remain objective—rather than resorting to double-standards like Tedlock illustrates—while perceiving stimuli that is inevitably going to be subjectively altered. The existent duality between perception and ‘correct’ mutual interpretation heightens the complexity of communicative competence; nonetheless, while distorting reality runs the risk of giving precedence to individual interpretation that can be over-manipulated or simply fallacious, the ability to generally comprehend what one actually means when a signal is given is essential to effective interaction, and inarguably an enviable trait of humans and other capable species.

            Another prevalent aspect of communicative competence is how writers and orators approach original, cultural authenticity when communicating with audiences of diversified backgrounds. As a result of the continuation of time, stories also change, and there is no consensus pertaining to ‘how much’ one can manipulate an original tale. For instance, philosopher J.L. Austin maintains, “language in such [aboriginal] circumstances is in special ways-intelligibly-used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use-ways which fall under the doctrine of etiolations of language” (Austin 1962: 21-22). While there are storytellers that do not give enough credit to the roots of a story, Austin’s assertion does appear too harsh; the changing of stories signifies social progression—hardly parasitic unless the progression has actually been a digression for society. Nevertheless, appreciating the source of a story is generally essential if one wants to communicate effectively. In response to those who invite the premise that many writings of the past, predominantly non-Western writings, lack due appreciation, Tedlock claims, “The apparent lack of literary value in many past translations is not a reflection but a distortion of the originals, caused by the dictation process, an emphasis on content, a pervasive deafness to oral qualities, and a fixed notion of the boundary between poetry and prose” (Tedlock 1983: 132). As Tedlock indirectly alludes to, there has been a significant transition from solely oral storytelling to a combination of oral and textual accounts. Unsurprisingly then, it becomes increasingly difficult to envision the oral tact that original cultures used—thus facilitating Austin’s claim that it is practically impossible to appreciate authenticity when nothing of the past is ever authentic in contemporary settings. Therefore, like much else in regards to linguistics, effective narrators must balance past culture with newfound ideals. Similarly, in order to fully appreciate older accounts, the audience should restrict taking contemporary advancements into account in order to fully appreciate authentic ideology of the past. Speaker and audience are certainly challenged when attempting to appreciate cultural roots, but when approached in a rational manner, communication can be fully appreciated and subsequently beneficial.

            In addition to the difficulties that cultivate when cultural roots are rightfully taken into consideration, narrator and audience must cope with their interdependent relationship that is significantly persuaded by subjective interpretation of any given situation. As the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato claimed, “the poet nothing affirmth,” basically reiterating that another person’s recount holds no power over individual interpretation if the receiving party holds strong, unwieldy convictions (Ohmann 1971: 5). In accordance, frames and performances are created that limit the power of the subjective—either eliminating the subjective by only allowing the possibility of one objective response, or simply disintegrating the traditional interdependence between speaker and audience. For instance, whereas Richard Bauman states, “interpret what I say in some special sense; do not take it to mean what the words alone, taken literally, would convey,” it is the very ‘special sense’ that aims at creating impartial objectivity (Bauman 1984: 292). In short, the narrator attempts to bridge the gap between subjectivity and objectivity out of fear of being misunderstood; therefore, the ‘special sense’ is rooted in universal appeal and understanding. For example, when William Shakespeare has Hamlet utter, “[Y]ou cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal: except my life, except my life, except my life,” Shakespeare’s performance lies in the presumed frame that it is difficult for any human to legitimately consider offering up one’s own life on a silver platter in the absence of extenuating circumstances (Shakespeare 1602: 9). In creating a situation that is universally agreed upon—appreciating the sacredness of life—Shakespeare denies subjective interference. Through denying aforementioned interference, communicative competence is enhanced but, in a juxtaposing sense, denying individualistic subjectivity appears to deny the potential of unobstructed communicative competence. Therefore, effective framing and performance predominantly lies in the power of the performer; by instigating an audience’s potential, a narrator’s mythical, utopian revelation actually has the potential of instituting change in reality.

            Lastly, framing and performance helps analyze communicative performance through the sheer power of performance. Literary texts of the past may inspire people to reassess how they are being treated, but it is the collective frame and performance that gives communication widespread power—examples including the storming of the Bastille that was preceded by the writers and speakers of the Tennis Court Oath in 1789 in France to the very recent revolutions of the Arab Spring, inspired by social media and liberal grassroots organization, that removed multiple socioeconomically oppressive dictators from power. As Raymond Firth proposes, “…structural forms set a precedent and provide a limitation to the range of alternatives possible…[A] person chooses, consciously or unconsciously, which course he will follow" (Firth 1961:40). Bearing this in mind, performances have the ability to be extremely relatable when social injustices are emphasized. In the literary or oral case, storytelling inspires the ‘what if…’ imagination and, albeit in a gradual manner, people believe that they can institute change when the collective agreement continues to increase—courtesy of communicative competence. Claude Levi-Strauss succinctly describes the power of storytelling quite adequately when saying, “…. its [the story’s] substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells" (Levi-Strauss 1955: 430). A writer or orator may be deemed talented or untalented based upon attributes such as style and syntax but, when all is said and done, it is the details of the story that are going to be remembered and passed on to future audiences. The stage presence—physically and intangibly—does certainly matter, but, for example, Mother Teresa will be remembered for her generous, selfless performances that appealed to a collective frame directly and indirectly as opposed to her ‘stage presence’ or ‘persona.’ Perhaps Tedlock summarizes the inspiration of stories most efficiently when he recounts the Zufii, peoples of a Pueblo Native American tribe, asking him, “When I tell these stories do you picture it, or do you just write it down?” (Tedlock 1983: 133). The inspiration derived from effective communication through stories and physical actions instigates many beneficial movements; accordingly, society should continue to utilize the narrator’s power to communicate with the listening, equally powerful masses.

            In conclusion, communicative competence is a multidimensional phenomenon that arguably serves as the cornerstone of human development. Consciously and subconsciously, humans and other species create relatable frames and perform in ways that illustrate sound understandings of topics and the need for their stories to be passed on to others. In particular, the dualistic relationship between signal reception and the actual context of a signal is a fascinating testament to the capabilities that humans and other organisms have in nearly instantaneously deciphering the motives behind a signal based on the social context of any given situation. Additionally, any form of communication is faced with balancing the denotation of authenticity out of respect with newfound developments—thus creating a system in which past developments are sometimes underappreciated. Hence, situations need to be viewed from an objective standpoint in the midst of a world of subjectivity—perhaps the most difficult feat for all who communicate. Overall though, communicative competence is extremely powerful—powerful enough to institute actual change for masses of people; through rational observance, impartiality, sharing, and listening, the processes of framing and performing in order to effectively communicate should only continue to enhance our understanding of the world around us.

 

Austin, J. (1962) How To Do Things With Words. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bateson, G. (1955) ‘A theory of play and fantasy’ in Steps towards an Ecology of Mind, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Bauman, R. (1984) Verbal Art as Performance. Illinois: Waveland Press.

Firth, R. (1961) Elements of Social Organization. 3rd ed. Boston: Beacon Press.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1955) ‘The Structural Study of Myth’, in Journal of American Folklore, 68. 428-444.

Ohmann, R. (1971) ‘Speech Acts and the Definition of Literature’, in Philosophy and Rhetoric.  4. 1-19.

Shakespeare, W. (1602) Hamlet. London: Penguin Popular Classics.

Tedlock, D. (1983) ‘On the translation of style in oral narrative’, in The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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