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date: 29 September 2023

Dell Hymes and Language Education locked

Dell Hymes and Language Education locked

  • Levi DurbidgeLevi DurbidgeUniversity of the Sunshine Coast


The work of Dell Hymes has been highly influential in language education and the field of linguistics more generally. Questions about the appropriateness of engaging with his work have been raised following allegations of sexual harassment during his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania. However, the radical nature of his work and its role in demonstrating that language was co-constitutive of the social, historical, and political contexts of its speakers requires engagement, particularly given the challenges facing language education in the early 21st century.

Hymes’ identification of the communicative event as fundamental to an understanding of language has been instrumental in the development of an influential collection of approaches now collectively referred to as communicative language teaching (CLT). Hymes’ sociologically informed concept of communicative competence, developed in reaction to Chomsky’s notions of linguistic competence and performance, has also been highly influential in language education research and practice. Subsequently, concerns have been raised about the recontextualization of Hymes’ work and the disconnect between idealized notions of communicative competence as they appear in contexts of language education and the actual language use in speech communities.

From a conceptual standpoint, re-engagement with Hymes’ work is needed to reorient CLT and corresponding notions of communicative competence to their sociological bases. Hymes understood the speech community as the context par excellence for describing language, and therefore it should also inform the orientation of language education to communication. This can be achieved by allowing ethnographic work to play a larger role in contexts of language education. Advances in digital communications technology offer many such opportunities, removing proximal requirements for observing and interacting with target speech communities and providing access to digital artifacts produced by the community.

As language education faces challenges driven by rapidly changing political, sociological, and technological circumstances, Hymes’ insights about the inherent inequality of language and its relationship with the political and social dimensions of speech communities remain highly relevant. Re-engaging with a Hymesian understanding of communicative competence means recognizing the contextually dependent bases for judgments about language and the variation that exists between individuals even within the same speech community. Hymes saw that the path to a more aware, more just society ran through this understanding of communicative competence, and so language education must look to this understanding if it seeks to transform the role that language plays in our social and political lives.


  • Curriculum and Pedagogy
  • Languages and Literacies

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