Dell Hymes (a linguistic anthropologist) coined the term communicative competence to argue against the notion that language is most appropriately studied and understood by a singular focus on its abstract structural properties and a dictionary of lexical meanings all housed within the psychological mind of the individual. Instead, communicative competence reflects a more inclusive conception of language, with the grammar and the dictionary situated according to a broader framework for how and when to use utterances in culturally and socially appropriate ways.

For example, ordinary conversation in traditional North American interaction is characterized by little gap or overlap between turns at talk. However, among the Western Apache of New Mexico, it is considered proper to refrain from speaking in situations of uncertainty and unpredictability—such as when ...

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