Myths of Origin and the Communicative Turn


  • Barbara Schmenk University of Waterloo


communicative language teaching, communicative competence, communicative turn, anthropology


This article focuses on the notion of communicative competence, which is widely held responsible for the occurrence of the communicative turn in language teaching methodology. Comparing North American and German discourses about communicative language teaching, this article focuses on two sources that are claimed to be the origins of the communicative turn: Habermas (1971) and Hymes (1972). Both define communicative competence, albeit in different ways. Given the differences between them, the communicative turn and the discourse of communicative language teaching appear inconsistent from the outset. Claiming that the communicative turn resulted from the discovery of communicative competence, which has been declared the ultimate goal of language education, is therefore dubious. The question arises why these historically incommensurable notions of communicative competence have largely been overlooked. A closer look at the commonalities between applied linguists’ attempts to foster communicative language teaching reveals that the success of communicative competence as an overall goal for language education can at least in part be attributed to sociohistoric aspects of zeitgeist as well—which apparently led many to overlook conceptual inconsistencies. The article concludes that the ‘myths of origin’ of the communicative turn ought to be considered in today’s historiography of language teaching methods and CLT as well, as they contribute to our understanding of why communicative language teaching has to be regarded as an umbrella term for teaching approaches that are based on particular social, political, educational and linguistic premises and imaginations.