Learning Chinese does not just involve mastering the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing; there are also four types of ‘competence’ required in order to speak Chinese well.
1. Formal Linguistic Competence
The key word for formal linguistic competence is accuracy in using Chinese. When you pay attention to correctness, you are learning formal linguistic competence. You have this kind of competence when you know and are able to say words and form sentences correctly, i.e. when you use the correct pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.
Some personality traits do this better than others. The perfectionist – who is always focusing on accuracy – does this well. However, the person who says, “They get my meaning – that’s all that matters” sadly isn’t bothered by those inaccuracies that so pain and haunt the perfectionist.
2. Discourse Competence
It isn’t enough simply to learn sentences in isolation. You must also know how to join sentences to make a complete whole that can be easily comprehended by Chinese people. You have discourse competence in Chinese, for example, when you are able to tell a story, write a letter or give a lecture ‘the Chinese way’. Not only are your sentences accurate but you also know how to make them hang together as Chinese do.
I enjoy lecturing, logically developing my theme step-by-step by supplying lots of facts. But I have to continually remind myself that Chinese enjoy stories and illustrations, and that if my Chinese audience is to feel comfortable with my approach, I must include lots of stories and illustrations too.
3. Sociolinguistic Competence
When you learn to converse in Chinese, it is very important that you not only learn to speak accurately and use the correct style, but also to speak in a way that is appropriate according to both your status and the status of those you are speaking to, as well as the topic being discussed, and the place where it is discussed. As one person put it: “We don’t just say anything to anyone for any purpose. We don’t just talk at any time or in any place or by any means or in any way. We only talk to appropriate people about appropriate things for appropriate purposes. We talk at appropriate times in appropriate places by appropriate means in appropriate ways.”
You have sociolinguistic competence, therefore, when you know and are able to use all the social rules about who speaks what, when, where, to whom, and why. The key word for sociolinguistic competence is cultural appropriateness in understanding and using Chinese in communication.
For example, people’s titles are much more important in China than in the West. Also family members call each other by their kinship titles, not simply by their given names. From our western background, this might all seem somewhat unnecessary or strange, but we must understand that using the proper title in a Chinese context demonstrates courtesy and respect.
Even common greetings, such as “Have you eaten yet?” might seem silly and somewhat irrelevant to us, but if we want to become an accepted member of the community (and hopefully we do), then it is important that we greet people ‘the Chinese way’.
The person who is very empathetic and sensitive to other people’s feelings naturally pays more attention to cultural appropriateness because they are continually trying to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. The rest of us can learn to do this by being keen observers of other people’s behavior and by cultivating an insatiable curiosity that keeps asking “Why?”, “How?”, etc. Reading books on Chinese culture will also help tremendously.
4. Strategic Competence
Finally, you must also know how to adjust your language for maximum effect. In communication, this may mean: a) adjusting your language (e.g. by speaking more softly/loudly or faster/slower than you usually do) to make your message more effective, or b) using appropriate communication strategies in order to get around communication breakdowns, such as paraphrasing something when you do not know the exact word, or using gestures. You have strategic competence when you are able to understand and use a whole range of verbal and non-verbal communication strategies effectively.
This, of course, takes a very long time; but be observant, have an insatiable curiosity, and get excited when you discover some new facet of Chinese cultural behavior!
From the beginning of your Chinese language studies, it is important, therefore, to aim to master all four types of competencies. Be very careful not to pay so much attention to formal linguistic competence – especially if you (or your teacher) have a natural perfectionist streak – that you fail to focus on the other three. If you fail to work on all four, you will be viewed as an uncultured foreigner and fail in your goal of becoming an accepted member of the Chinese community.
(The outline for this article and much of the content is taken from ‘Language Learning for Life’ by Dr. Mary W. J. Tay, published by Source Publishing)
How Competent are You in Chinese? pdf file