Discourse competence definition history theory and relevance

Discourse Competence

Discourse competence refers to a person’s ability to function effectively and appropriately in a language, combining grammatical forms and meaning to achieve a linked text (oral or written), in different communication situations. It includes, therefore, mastery of the skills and strategies that allow interlocutors to produce and interpret texts, as well as that of the traits and characteristics of the different discourse genres of the speech community in which the person operates. In this article you will be able to understand the definition of discourse competence.

The concept was born within the framework of communication ethnography studies , as a development of the concept of communicative competence proposed by D. Hymes. It is soon adopted in the field of second language teaching, in which it undergoes successive reworkings. M. Canale (1983) is one of the first authors to break down communicative competence into several others, one of which is discourse competence. In other linguistic disciplines —in particular, in discourse analysis— the same term has also been used, with close meanings and always in opposition to linguistic competence , the latter understood as mastery of the rules of the system and the former as mastery of the rules of the system. rules of language use.

In the field of discourse analysis, it is often assimilated, on occasions, to pragmatic competence and in others it is distinguished from it, as Kerbrat-Orecchioni (1986) does, who assigns the domain of specific discourse genres to the discursive and to the pragmatic that of the general principles of verbal exchanges, common to various genres (for example, the principle of cooperation ). Others (P. Charadeau, 2000) distinguish between situational competence, discourse competence and semi-linguistic competence.

In the field of second language didactics, it is generally equated with , or considered to encompass, textual competence . L. Bachman (1990), in his hierarchical description of the components of communicative competence, does not speak of discourse competence and refers only to textual competence , which includes knowledge of the conventions to join sentences and form a text, structured according to rules of cohesion and rhetorical organization.

The most recent model for describing discourse competence is that of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages , which includes it as one more of the pragmatic competences and describes it in terms of mastery of both discourse genres and textual sequences ; In his definition of this competence, he highlights the ability to direct and structure discourse, order sentences in coherent sequences and organize the text according to the conventions of a specific community to explain stories, build arguments or arrange written texts in paragraphs. As it does with the rest of the competences it describes, the Common European Framework It also proposes four criteria for the evaluation of discourse competence:

  1. flexibility in light of the circumstances in which communication takes place
  2. handling turn-taking (in oral interaction)
  3. thematic development
  4. the coherence and cohesion of the texts (oral and written) that it produces.


The notion of discourse competence can vary according to the meaning given to the term discourse , but, more generally, discourse competence is defined as the ability of the language user, who produces and understands oral or written texts, to contextualize their interaction by verbal language (or other languages), adapting its textual product to the context of enunciation. This must be considered either in its restricted sense, which is the immediate situation in which the linguistic formulation of the text takes place, or in its broad sense, which is the socio-historical and ideological context. Therefore, discourse competence represents mastery of the rules and principles of language use in different situations.

Discourse competence can be seen as a hyper-competence that encompasses and affects linguistic and textual competences, as it allows the language user to perceive that linguistic sequences taken as texts do not mean by themselves, but also as a function of elements outside the linguistic sequence, such as, among others: who says what; for whom; why / for what; when (including at what point in history); Where; what are the interlocutors’ social roles at the time of verbal communicative interaction; what their beliefs are, how they see the elements of the world they speak of in their text; finally, which ideology (world view and beliefs) ‘shapes’ the text.

Discourse competence would have to do with the performance of the language user in a discourse or socio-discourse formation, understood in a very simple and more operational way as the set of specific ways to establish meaning, the senses that are at work in a socio-historical-ideological cut of a society and culture (“macho discourse”, “neo-liberal discourse”, “PT discourse”, for example). The discourse competence, in this sense, would be the language user’s ability to recognize what is sayable or not in a discourse formation, both to say what can be said and to know what to expect from a given discourse. Macho discourse says things that feminist discourse does not; religious discourse says things that materialist discourse does not – knowing how to deal with it is part of discourse competence . Furthermore, the same word or expression can assume different meanings in different discourse formations. The word happiness, for example, takes on different meanings in advertising discourse and in religious discourse – realizing this is part of discourse competence .

For teaching the production and comprehension of oral and written texts (thus, in literacy), it is important to act taking into account the discourse dimension of texts in their social functioning, because without this it is impossible to consider the degree of greater or lesser adequacy. and ownership of texts. 

History of the discourse competence concept

Noam Chomsky, creator of the linguistic competence / linguistic performance antinomy .

In 1965 , Noam Chomsky introduces in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax the antinomy linguistic competence / linguistic performance , to distinguish, respectively, the ability to use the language from the use of it. 

A parallelism is usually made between the antinomy linguistic competence / linguistic performance (from Comsky) and the antinomy language / speech (from Saussure), respectively. However, language and linguistic competence are not correlative, since Saussure defined language in his Course in General Linguistics as ” a social product of the faculty of language “, while for Chomsky linguistic competence is not social, but individually. 

In 1966 , Dell Hymes reacts against Chomsky’s proposal in a work entitled On Communicative Competence , in which he criticizes the restrictedness of the Chomskyan concept considering Chomsky’s competence as knowledge , although later, in 1989, Hymes acknowledges not having warned that the linguistic competence raised by Chomsky was skill and not knowledge in the use of the language.

Hornberger, in 1989, notes how, after various considerations and reconsiderations around the theory of linguistic competence , by such renowned linguists as Rivers (1972), Paulston (1974), van Ek (1975), Wilkings (1976 ) and Widdowson (1978), Canale and Swain (1980) finally manage to develop a theory of four components of communicative competence , namely: grammatical (linguistic) competence, socio-linguistic competence, discourse competence and strategic competence . 


The popularity of mechanical grammar drills in language teaching, still prevalent in some parts of the world, is influenced by the view that grammatical structures are the basic building blocks of language. It is assumed that individuals will be able to use language effectively in all situations if they have successfully learned all the grammar rules. Such an approach is insufficient for effective communication.

Although vocabulary learning is an important aspect of language learning, it is not very useful to learn a list of words out of context. For example, give and grant have a similar meaning but grant is commonly used in a legal or formal context. Presenting the two words out of context may result in learners using them interchangeably.


Discourse, in the broadest sense, refers to language use in social contexts. The two main aspects of discourse competence are cohesion and coherence (Celce-Murcia, Dörnyei & Thurrell, 1995). Cohesion refers to using linking expressions, such as conjunctions or adverbial phrases, to connect ideas. A coherent text is one that makes sense. This concept includes clearly and logically indicating relationships, such as cause-effect and problem-solution, between ideas or events.

Discourse competence also refers to familiarity with genres (Connor & Mbaye, 2002), such as conversations, interviews and reports. In other words, a discoursally competent speaker or writer is able to arrange words, phrases and sentences to structure a text that is appropriate within a particular genre.


A lack of coherence in a text is often noticeable when ideas jump out of the blue. Teachers can introduce the concept of coherence by using examples of the lack of this element in learners’ essays. As a follow-up activity, learners can work in pairs to connect the ideas, with teachers’ support if necessary.

Teachers can also direct learners’ attention to instances of how coherence is realised in reading texts, which includes phrases such as in other wordsfor this reason, and as a result.

Enhancing cohesion in writing means making the flow from one sentence to another move more smoothly. This can be achieved by using pronouns. Consider the following example:

Air pollution is a serious problem in some developing countries. It causes health problems and harms the environment.

In order to teach discourse features in a particular genre, teachers can help learners identify and apply these features. When learning to write topic sentences in argument essays, for example, learners can identify typical grammatical realizations of these sentences and use them as a guide. Read more about the genre approach to writing.

We hope that you understood the definition of discourse competence after reading this article.

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