1 – Communication Theory

We acquire language by communicating meaningful messages.

If you study about grammar, you will know about grammar. But if you practice communication, you will learn to communicate. These opinions express a rather unbalanced view about language teaching and learning. And we would be wise to avoid having unbalanced views. In reality, to communicate well, we need a natural and automatic sense of grammar.

In communicative language teaching (CLT), teachers choose. They choose how much they emphasize grammar. And they choose how much they emphasize communication. (We have a  brief summary of CLT in Chapter Seven: Teaching Through Communication.)

For example, one teacher does only communication activities. He believes that students acquire grammar by communicating. Another teacher does the same communication activities. But during the lesson, he takes notes of student mistakes. When students are done communicating, he writes the mistakes on the board. Then students work on correcting their mistakes. A third teacher does grammar and vocabulary activities. Students practice the grammar and vocabulary with drills. Then they use the grammar and vocabulary in communication activities.

All these teachers are doing communicative language teaching. They are choosing how much to emphasize communication and grammar, or we can say fluency and accuracy. But behind all this activity, what’s the theory that guides us to do communicative language teaching?

In short, we can say this. We acquire language by communicating meaningful messages. This is very general, and yet we can see how it might guide our lessons. We want learners to do activities where they communicate. Now these learners can communicate with each other, or they can experience communication by reading, watching, or listening to meaningful messages. In a sense, this theory combines all kinds of input and output of meaningful messages. The idea is this. If students experience communication, they will acquire the language. The more they communicate, the more they acquire!

But we must ask this. Does it work?! We can answer this question in a few ways. For one, it works for enjoyment. Students will enjoy the communication of meaningful messages in their classes. And they will enjoy this more than grammar study. If they like grammar more, maybe they will become linguists in the future! But basically real communication is more fun than dry language study.

Second, we know that we acquire language by communicating messages. For one, we know this because when people live in another culture, they communicate. It goes like this. Ken is Japanese. He moves to London. He studies and works in London for two years. He communicates every day in English. At the end of two years, he can communicate very well in English.

Ken stands as a typical example study or living abroad. We also have research showing that people who live or study abroad acquire language. For example, Ellis and Tanaka (2003) show that when people study abroad, they improve their language skills.  They improve in overall proficiency. They improve their word knowledge and fluency

Interestingly, with study abroad, learners do not seem to improve as much in their language accuracy and complexity. But in the end, study abroad works. Freed (1998, p. 50) says, “Much of the research. . . brings welcome empirical support to the long-held popular belief in the power of a study abroad experience to profoundly influence the linguistic skills of program participants.”

And for our purposes here the point. We acquire language when we study or live abroad — because we communicate. Of course, communicating abroad differs from communicating in classrooms. But this makes logical sense. If we simulate real world communication in our classrooms, this will help our students communicate in the real world. And we must also remember that communication can be fun!

Again, here is our theory about communication that can guide the way we teach and learn. We acquire language by communicating meaningful messages!


Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.