What does it mean to “communicate”?

“Relax,” many teachers tell students, “if you have communicated, it’s all right.”

Indeed. What is it, however, that counts as effective communication? At what moment can we chill out knowing we have done a good job in communicating?

For some teachers, communication is getting your message across. It doesn’t matter if the learner has made mistakes, if the listener has had to pay very close attention, if understanding the learner demanded many turns of negotiation. In sharp contrast, there are people who will maintain learners don’t need ‘to communicate’ only. “Accuracy and complexity matter, too!” they brandish.

Maybe you don’t recognize your opinion in one of those black-and-white positions (shame on me for misrepresenting them!), but I bet you’ve heard some of those arguments. If so, no matter which side of the debate you tend towards, I ask you again, what is your concept of ‘communication’ that you say is or isn’t enough as a goal?

In debates like that, I often wonder if the underlying view of language, for both sides, is the conduit metaphor. The conduit metaphor, as described by Reddy (1979), is the very pervasive myth that language is a mere channel for our thoughts. Let us say I’m talking to my husband. I, the speaker, have a thought I wish to communicate, so I package it into words, which my husband then hears and proceeds to unpack to understand my meaning. If he didn’t understand, I’ll consider it’s his fault, obviously. After all, the meaning is supposedly there, carefully packaged by me within my precisely selected words.

Neat, isn’t it? Shame it’s not true. Much as I’d like to pin any communication problems on my husband, that’s not really how language works. First of all, not all communication is transactional, that is, not all communication aims to exchange information. Sometimes, we’re just chatting for the sake of reinforcing relationships: “Oh, how are you? Great to hear that!” Secondly, even when we are exchanging information, it’s much more complicated than simply encoding and decoding thoughts. There’s ambiguity, polysemy, regional differences in uses of words, implied meanings, inferences, unclear references, background knowledge, feelings, the image you want to portray of you as a person, your view of the other, any bad blood between the two of you… All that impacts on how you say and how you are going to be understood.

For instance, let’s say you go to a family party, and a distant relative starts explaining to you how the present perfect is formed, “It’s has or have, plus the past participle.” Chances are you’ll be replying something along the lines of, “You do realize I’m an English language teacher, don’t you?” You see, if communication were all about the information, all you could do is acknowledge it. The person is indeed right about the structure of the present perfect. When you remind your interlocutor of your profession, what you are doing is responding to the view of you as someone who doesn’t know such a basic fact about the language. You are responding not to the meaning of the sentence per se, but to a negative conception of you that your relative’s utterance implies.

That’s a much more complex view of language and communication. If we view language this way, then both stances on the debate become quite similar. On one hand, those who say “communication is enough” may not mean just the information. There are lots of meanings in a message, and the information therein is possibly just one of them. I probably want you to go beyond the information I’m “passing” and see me as an intelligent and gentle being, a competent professional, a good language speaker, etc. On the other hand, those who defend accuracy and complexity are pointing out the need of being recognized as competent and intelligent. Because if a learner’s command of language is similar to a 4-year-old’s, that will probably affect how other adults will perceive him or her. (Of course, we always hope our learners’ interlocutors will understand what it’s like to try to communicate in a foreign language and cut them a slack, but hey ho.)

In short, maybe the goal of language teaching should indeed be effective communication. Who’s to say, though, what the standard for effective communication is?

(To be continued)



For the conduit metaphor, please check:

Reddy, M. J. (1979) The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and thought (p. 284-297). Cambridge: CUP.


or the summary in

Lakoff, G., & Johnsen, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. London: University of Chicago.


For the difference between transactional and interactional language, please refer to:

Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983). Discourse analysis. Cambridge: CUP.

Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher for 16 years and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Language Testing from the University of Melbourne. She's a moderator for BrELT and has been elected to the BRAZ-TESOL Advisory Council for the 2017-2018 term.

2 thoughts on “What does it mean to “communicate”?

    • Thank you for your feedback, Cristina. =) Yes, on March 5 I’ll publish a post about indigenous assessment criteria, a concept that is very important in language assessment, especially for people who work with English for Specific Purposes, but which I think could contribute to language teaching as well.

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