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La lengua como comunicación: lenguaje oral y lenguaje escrito. Factores que definen una situación comunicativa: emisor, receptor, funcionalidad y contexto.



Autor: Javier Izquierdo Olalla



1. Introduction.

2. Key insights on language and communication.

2.1. Early models of linguistic communication.

2.2. Structural linguistics and Generative Grammar.

2.3. Language and speech.

2.4. Criticism of Structural Linguistics and Generative Grammar.

2.5. Contemporary developments.

2.6. Present-day: The message-model of linguistic communication.

3. Main characteristics of verbal language as a means of communication.

3.1. The double-sided nature of the linguistic sign.

3.2. Arbitrariness and conventionality.

3.3. Double articulation of language.

4. Spoken language.

4.1. The natural-sound source.

4.2. Interactions and transactions.

5. Written language.

5.1. Prestige of writing. Its influence upon the oral medium.

5.2. Correspondence between sound and graphic symbol.

6. Study of a communicative situation.

6.1. Oral versus written communication.

6.2. Elements in a communicative situation.

6.3. Functionality. Function and functions of language.

7. Conclusions.

8. Bibliography.




If a language is defined as a tool or artefact used for the purpose of communication, it seems obvious that there are many types of languages in the world. From animal ways of communication up to sophisticated techniques such as Morse code, Braille, computer languages, etc.

Semiotics studies the behaviour of signs within a community. Thus, it deals with all sorts and means of communication: railway and road traffic signs, sailing codes, advertising codes, colour, acoustic codes, television and film codes, etc.

Languages can be classified according to the senses they involve. For example, animal communication relies heavily on all senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The more sophisticated a language becomes, the more it specialises in its appeal to the senses. For example, Braille involves basically the sense of touch, Morse consists basically of sound, and so on.

Human communication, broadly considered, involves all senses. However, human communication by means of verbal language relies on hearing and, as an artificial but useful development, on sight.

In this sense, Linguistics must be understood as the study of human verbal language. That is, it is only one part of the study of that higher category which is Communication.

The production of specific sounds associated to concepts abstracted from reality, and the fact that the combination of this small set of sounds can produce an infinite number of messages, are the two essential principles that make human verbal language probably the most perfect means of communication that we can conceive of.

It is probably the most perfect; by no means the only one. Human communication, as we have hinted above, involves a lot more: body language, drawing and painting, all the semiotic codes mentioned above, touch, smell, taste, codes from different sciences and disciplines… .

So, what is Communication? Simply, the connection and interaction of an entity or individual with the outer world.

How does it happen? By producing, perceiving and interpreting one of more sets or systems of signs shared by a community.

Human verbal communication takes place by using a common system of sounds and written symbols. There are lots of different human verbal languages in the world, different codes for different communities, but all of them share the core characteristics of human language.




2.1. Early models of linguistic communication.

Philosopher John Locke wrote in 1691 that “(…) besides articulate sounds, it was further necessary that man should be able to use these sounds as signs of internal conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the ideas within his own mind, whereby they might be made known to others and the thoughts of men’s minds be conveyed from one to another. (…) The comfort and advantage of society not being to be had without communication of thoughts, it was necessary that man should find out some sensible signs, whereby those invisible ideas, which his thoughts are made up of, might be made known to others.”


2.2. Structural Linguistics and Generative Grammar.

“The starting point of the circuit is in the brain of one individual, for instance A, where facts of consciousness which we shall call concepts are associated with representations of linguistic signs or sound patterns by means of which they may be expressed. Let us suppose that a given concept triggers in the brain a corresponding sound pattern. This is an entirely psychological phenomenon, followed in turn by a physiological process: the brain transmits to the organs of phonation an impulse corresponding to the pattern.


2.3. Language and speech.

Otherwise, this model of linguistic communication makes a distinction between what people actually say, their overt verbal behaviour, ‘speech’, la parole in Saussure’s terminology, and la langue, ‘language’, which is the system of arbitrary conventions assumed to underlie and direct verbal behaviour.


2.4. Criticism of Structural Linguistics and Generative Grammar.

Now, if that is indeed the right way to look at language, then of course it follows that the material circumstances in which linguistic activity takes place are of no significance


2.5. Contemporary developments.

Discourse Analysis works with real samples: oral and written acts of communication, texts of all kinds. The study of such materials provides statistics of the use of terms, discourse markers, rhythm, frequency, etc. It elaborates commentaries on how texts can be classified, on their intention, on how meaning is constructed and negotiated, on how implication or understatement work… This analysis focuses on discourse features such as coherence, cohesion and texture, which are built on elements like substitution, ellipsis, conjunction, deixis, repetition (anaphora and cataphora)…


2.6. Present-day: The message-model of linguistic communication.

It is certainly not for want of current interest in communication. On the contrary, in various fields during the past ten years, both verbal and non-verbal mechanisms of communication have attracted a great deal of new research. However, the various strands of that research have been pursued to a large extent sporadically and independently.




3.1. The double-sided nature of the linguistic sign.

A linguistic sign, roughly speaking a ‘word’, consists of two sides or components of its nature.


3.2. Arbitrariness and conventionality.

Linguistic signs are symbols, not icons or tokens. By saying that the linguistic sign is arbitrary and conventional, we mean that their nature is symbolic, that is, the relationship or correspondence between the signifier and the signified in any given linguistic sign is not based on a natural or obvious connection.


3.3. Double articulation of language

This is a simple and, at the same time, a key feature. It is the mere fact that language consists essentially of two basic units:

On the one hand, we have the phoneme (sound unit), that can be defined as the smallest linguistic unit without meaning, but able to produce a difference in meaning.




4.1. The natural-sound source

This view of the beginning of human speech is based on the concept of ‘natural sounds’. The suggestion is that primitive words could have been imitations of the natural sounds which early men and women heard around them. The fact that all modern languages have some words with pronunciations which seem to echo naturally occurring sounds could be used to support this theory.


4.2. Interactions and transactions

In developing speech, humans have obviously incorporated versions of naturally occurring sounds such as bow-wow. They have also incorporated cries of emotional reaction, such as Wow, and Ugh, and accompany much of their speech with body language.




5.1. Prestige of writing. Its influence upon the oral medium

We experience probably the larger part of the language we use through the visual medium. Writing has certain prestige over the verbal source. Normally, it is perceived as permanent, more reliable and more correct. However, historically, the only reason for the existence of writing is the representation of oral language.


5.2. Correspondence between sound and graphic symbol

All languages show some degree of inconsistency between the spoken and the written forms. For example, in Spanish we find problems or lack of correspondence especially in the use of b-v, g-j, c-q-k, h.

However, in the case of English, inconsistency seems to be the rule rather than the exception.




6.1. Oral versus written communication.

6.2. Elements in a communicative situation.

The addresser (transmitter, sender, speaker…) sends a message to the addressee (receiver, hearer, listener…). In order to be operative, that is, meaningful, the message requires, in the first place, the reference to a context (situation, object), which must include surrounding reality and/or some necessary knowledge shared by the participants. In the second place, the message requires a code common to the participants. Finally, it requires a contact (channel), a physical channel and a psychological connection between the addresser and the addressee through which they can set up and keep communication.


6.3. Functionality. Function and functions of language.

Karl Bühler distinguishes three functions:

Relationship message-transmitter: function: expression

Relationship message-addressee: function: appeal

Relationship message-context: function: representation




Language is a tool employed by human beings to communicate and interact with each other. This is not the sole function of language, but it is surely its most important one.  

Communication through the medium of spoken language is concerned with the conveying of concepts by means of vocal noises. In written language, humans use the visual medium to represent those oral sounds.

Although communication among human beings by means of language has been a focal topic of study and inquiry since the very beginnings of formal education, a global theory of communication has not been elaborated yet to the satisfaction of experts and users alike.

The sheer volume, complexity and ever-changing nature of the subject may be the reason why, today, in spite of all that has been written on the subject, there is still an academic gap in the place where a science of human communication ought to be.

As language teachers, this should be one of our central concerns, at least for its relation to our daily practice, to the extent that the process of teaching and acquiring or learning a language is only as good as the communicative goals it is able to achieve and develop. 




  • Chomsky, N. Aspects of the theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1965.
  • Halliday, M. A. K. An Introduction to Functional Grammar, London Edward Arnold, 1985.
  • Jakobson, R. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics”, Thomas A. Sebeok, Style in Language, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1960.
  • Lockwood, D. Introduction to Stratificational Linguistics. Michigan State University, 1972.
  • Love, N. The Foundations of Linguistic Theory. Selected Writings of Roy Harris. Edited by Nigel Love. Routledge. London & New York, 1990.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. (Translated and annotated by Roy Harris). Course in General Linguistics (First published in 1916). Duckworth, London, 1983.
  • Widdowson, H. G. Teaching Language as Communication. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Yule, G. The Study of Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
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