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What Is Discourse Competence?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Discourse competence is generally a term referring to the ability to understand and express oneself in a given language. Experts point out that there are different varieties of discourse competence that measure different aspects of communication. An examination of this subject shows how well an individual can communicate in a given context. The word “discourse” is a general one that covers conversations and other kinds of communication involving multiple parties.

One kind of competence in discourse is often called textual competence. This is basically a measure of how well an individual can read different texts and understand them. Different kinds of text include fiction and nonfiction, narratives, instructional guides, and other types of written communications, like transcriptions of recorded conversations or technical materials. The better readers can understand these texts, the more textual discourse competence they have.

Another very common type of competence related to discourse is rhetorical or effective discourse competence. This is often defined as how well an individual can contribute to a conversation. This kind of discourse ability, or competence, also includes multiple components. One is how well the individual can understand what is being said by a range of speakers. Another is how well the individual can interject his or her own opinions, and how well that person can express ideas to an audience within a general scenario.

There are many different components to overall discourse competence. For example, those who are examining this kind of skill or competence might study how individuals process many different phrases or verbal ideas, such as those that announce narratives, those that express specific emotions or feelings, or any of the wide range of idiomatic or slang phrases that are frequently used in a particular language. When measuring discourse competence in real-time, it can be helpful to note whether an individual struggles with a specific kind of phrase or idiom.

Many experts would contend that there’s also an element of timeliness in assessing discourse skill or competence levels. Those at the top of the spectrum of ability are able to express themselves quickly and effectively, which helps them to inject their own ideas into a continuing discourse. Others might struggle with these tasks, and be placed lower on a scale of conversational discourse competence. All of this helps linguists and other experts to study how people build language skills over time, or to assess the progress of a certain student or other individual.

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Discussion Comments

By healthy4life — On Oct 01, 2012

Discourse competence can grow with practice. My Spanish friend could barely carry on a conversation in English when she arrived here, but now, she has learned how to incorporate slang and common idioms into her discourse.

I think the more you work at it, the more you will improve. My friend was determined to fit in here, and she has made great strides.

By JackWhack — On Sep 30, 2012

@orangey03 – That's why there are several measurements of discourse competence. You might be looked over in conversation, but I imagine that if you submitted a paper, you would be praised for your textual competence.

I'm the opposite way. I am much better at interjecting my opinions aloud and at public speaking than at writing. There's room for everyone, though.

By orangey03 — On Sep 29, 2012

It's sad to me that someone with excellent reading and writing skills can be looked over because of their inability to vocally express themselves. I have a great understanding of the English language, and I can write beautifully. However, I cannot express my thoughts in conversation.

When I try to formulate my thoughts aloud, they fall apart. I can't find the words, and I stumble over my phrases. It's rather embarrassing, especially for someone as literate as I am.

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