Communication Competence: a Malaysian Perspective

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Human Communication. A Publication of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association. Vol. 11, No. 3, pp.303 – 312.

Communication Competence: A Malaysian Perspective

Lailawati Mohd Salleh, PhD Faculty of Economics and Management Universiti Putra Malaysia 43400 Serdang, Selangor Malaysia Email:

304 Communication Competence

Introduction Communication competence has been studied in a diverse array of scholarship such as human-computer interaction, marketing, gerontology, institutional contexts, conflict, and intercultural relations (for more, see Wilson & Sabee, 2003). Interesting to note though, despite this vast literature, communication competence lacks definitional consensus (Jablin & Sias, 2001; Wilson & Sabee, 2003). Even though a plethora of studies on communication competence exist, scholars studying the concept are still perplexed with what constitutes communication competence and also there are others who express concern about the lack of theory (Wilson & Sabee, 2003). Tracing the related literature on communication competence might provide some insights into the underlying elements of communication competence. This essay attempts to put forth those elements. Definitions of the Term For decades, linguists have been interested in the notion of competence (Cooley & Roach, 1984). Chomsky’s (1965) earlier conception that competence is “the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language” (p. 4) omits performance which to Hymes (1972) lacks the interactional (behavioral) element of communication. Based on this critique, Hymes (1972) offers a description of communication competence as: I should take competence as the general term for the capability of a person. Competence is dependent on both (tacit) knowledge and (ability for) use. … The specification of ability for use as part of competence allows for the role of noncognitive factors, such as motivation, as partly determining competence. In speaking of competence, it is especially important not to separate cognitive from affective and volitive. (p. 282-283)

Basically, Hymes suggests that knowledge and ability for use (skill) are required to be perceived competent and that cognition, affection, and volition as part of achieving that level. For us to understand an individual’s communicative performance (and hence competence), one has to take into consideration the individual and his or her interlocutor’s competence and the interactional event (Hymes, 1972). Even though both Chomsky and Hymes contribute to the understanding of competence, their early definitions of the concept lack detailed explanations to be useful as a theoretical concept of competence (Cooley & Roach, 1984). Moving away from the linguists whose interest on competence is language-based, scholars of communication are more concerned with the pedagogical aspect of communication competence (Cooley & Roach, 1984; McCroskey, 1984). Similar to Hymes, Wiemann and Backlund’s (1980) review of work in competence noted two similar categories of competence, namely the cognitive and behavioral perspectives, noting that communication is situated in the behavioral category. Arguing that competence should involve both cognition and behavior, Wiemann and Backlund view communication competence as: The ability [i.e. cognitive ability] of an interactant to choose among available communicative behaviors in order that he (she) may successfully accomplish [ by employing skills] his (her) own interpersonal goals during an encounter while maintaining the face and line of his (her) fellow interactant within the constraints of the situation [adaptation and appropriateness]. (p. 188)

Other scholars, Cooley and Roach (1984) offer three criteria on coming to terms with a general theorizing of the concept. They suggest that a theory of competence would take into consideration the physiological (age, sex and the like), psychological (that is cognitive constructs, affective constructs,...
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