Linguistic competence

Linguistic competence

Linguistic competence is the system of linguistic knowledge possessed by native speakers of a language, it is in contrast to the concept of Linguistic performance, the way the language system is used in communication. The concept was first introduced by Noam Chomsky[1] as part of the foundations for his Generative grammar, but it has since been adopted and developed by other linguists, particularly those working in the generativist tradition. In the generativist tradition competence is the only level of language that is studied, because this level gives insights into the Universal Grammar, that generativists see as underlying all human language systems. Functional theories of grammar tend to dismiss the sharp distinction between competence and performance, and particularly the primacy given to the study of competence.

According to Chomsky, competence is the 'ideal' language system that makes it possible for speakers to produce and understand an infinite number [nb 1] of sentences in their language, and to distinguish grammatical sentences from ungrammatical sentences. This is unaffected by "grammatically irrelevant conditions" such as speech errors.[1] Linguistic competence includes components such as phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics and morphology.


Competence versus performance

"Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-communication, who know its (the speech community's) language perfectly and that it is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of this language in actual performance." ~Chomsky,1965[1]

Chomsky differentiates competence, which is an idealized capacity, from performance being the production of actual utterances. According to him, competence is the ideal speaker-hearer's knowledge of his or her language and it is the 'mental reality' which is responsible for all those aspects of language use which can be characterized as 'linguistic'.[2] Chomsky argues that only under an idealized situation whereby the speaker-hearer is unaffected by grammatically irrelevant conditions such as memory limitations and distractions will performance be a direct reflection of competence. A sample of natural speech consisting of numerous false starts and other deviations will not provide such data. Therefore, he claims that a fundamental distinction has to be made between the competence and performance.[1]

Chomsky dismissed criticisms of delimiting the study of performance in favor of the study of underlying competence, as unwarranted and completely misdirected. He claims that the descriptivist limitation-in-principle to classification and organization of data, the "extracting patterns" from a corpus of observed speech and the describing "speech habits" etc. are the core factors that precludes the development of a theory of actual performance.[1]

Competence and components of grammar

One's competence is defined by the grammar,[nb 2][3] or set of language rules, that is represented mentally and manifested based on his or her own understanding of acceptable usage in a given linguistic idiom. Therefore, grammatical competence defines an innate knowledge of rules rather than knowledge of items or relations. According to Chomsky, it is regarded to be innate because one does not have to be trained to develop it and will still be able to apply it in an infinite number of unheard examples.[4]

The core components of the grammar are included in the speaker's linguistic competence and these components corresponds to five of the major subfields of linguistics:

  • Phonetics: The physical production and perception of the inventory of sounds used in producing language.
  • Phonology: The mental organization of physical sounds and the patterns formed by the way sounds are combined in a language, and the restrictions on permissible sound combinations.
E.g.: slip vs *slib and *sbill
  • Morphology: The identification, analysis and description of units of meaning in a language. One will know the inflectional and derivational morphology present in the language, such as the affixes of words.
E.g.: re-cuddle can be derived but not *re-rich
  • Syntax: The structure and formation of sentences. One can distinguish between grammatical sentences and ungrammatical sentences.
E.g.: My hair needs washing is acceptable but not *My hair needs wash
  • Semantics: Understanding the meaning of sentences. This is also how a user of the language is able to understand and interpret the non-literal meaning in a given utterance. They are three distinctions drawn here:
(i) Meaningful and non-meaningful sentences
E.g.: The accident was seen by thousands is meaningful but not *The accident was looked by thousands
(ii) Same structure but different meanings
E.g.: The cow was found by the stream but not *The cow was found by the farmer
(iii) Different structures and still be able to relate the meanings
E.g.: The police examined the bullet.
The bullet was examined by the police.

Schools of thought

Chomsky and Generative Grammar

Chomsky's perspective of language learning basically revolves around the idea that all humans have an internal capacity to acquire language. In other words, it implies that this ability to learn and analyze linguistic information is universal and innate, and Chomsky likened it to a language acquisition device, being a result of human evolution.[5] One of the key figures quoted by Chomsky as a spark for his ideas included Wilhelm von Humboldt who advocated the "creative" aspect of language and that a grammar must be existent to describe the process that makes a language possible to "make infinite use of finite means".[1] Another key figure is Ferdinand de Saussure and his idea of langue and parole but however, Chomsky rejects Saussure's notion of langue as "merely a systematic inventory of items" but rather chooses to conceptualize a model of underlying competence regarded as "a system of generative processess".[4] Another major influence is René Descartes whose concern with the creative powers of the mind leads him to regard human language as an instrument of thought.[4]

A generative grammar is a finite set of rules that could hypothetically produce an infinitive number of utterances. It enables humans to generate all kinds of sentences and never to produce an ungrammatical sentence.[5] In Chomsky's own words:

" a generative grammar I mean simply a system of rules that in some explicit and well-defined way assigns structural descriptions to sentences."[1]

Chomsky's notion of linguistic competence is purely syntactic.

Other generativists

Linguistic competence is treated as more comprehensive term for lexicalists, such as Jackendoff and Pustejovsky, within the generative school of thought. They assume a modular lexicon, a set of lexical entries containing semantic, syntactic and phonological information deemed necessary to parse a sentence.[6] [7] In the generative lexicalist view this information is intimately tied up with linguistic competence. Nevertheless, their models are still in line with the mainstream generative research in adhering to strong innateness, modularity and autonomy of syntax.[8]

Ray S. Jackendoff

Ray S. Jackendoff's model deviates from the traditional generative grammar in that it does not treat syntax as the main generative component from which meaning and phonology is developed unlike Chomsky. According to him, a generative grammar consists of five major components: the lexicon, the base component, the transformational component, the phonological component and the semantic component. [nb 3][9] Againsting the syntax-centered view of generative grammar(syntactocentrism), he specifically treats phonology, syntax and semantics as three parallel generative processes, coordinated through interface processes. He further subdivides each of those three processes into various "tiers", themselves coordinated by interfaces. Yet, he clarifies that those interfaces are not sensitive to every aspect of the processes they coordinate. For instance, phonology is affected by some aspects of syntax, but not vice versa.

James Pustejovsky

In contrast to the static view of word meaning (where each word is characterized by a predetermined number of word senses) which imposes a tremendous bottleneck on the performance capability of any natural language processing system, Pustejovsky proposes that the lexicon becomes an active and central component in the linguistic description. The essence of his theory is that the lexicon functions generatively, first by providing a rich and expressive vocabulary for characterizing lexical information; then, by developing a framework for manipulating fine-grained distinctions in word descriptions; and finally, by formalizing a set of mechanisms for specialized composition of aspects of such descriptions of words, as they occur in context, extended and novel sense are generated.[10]

Katz & Fodor

Katz and Fodor suggests that a grammar should be thought of as a system of rules relating the externalized form of the sentences of a language to their meanings that are to be expressed in a universal semantic representation, just as sounds are expressed in a universal semantic representation. They hope that by making semantics an explicit part of generative grammar, more incisive studies of meaning would be possible. Since they assume that semantic representations are not formally similar to syntactic structure, they suggest a complete linguistic description must therefore include a new set of rules, a semantic component, to relate meanings to syntactic and/or phonological structure. Their theory can be reflected by their slogan "linguistic description minus grammar equals semantics".[9][11]

Functionalist critiques of the generativist concept of Competence

Functionalist linguists forward a usage-based perspective on linguistic competence. They argue that linguistic competence is derived from and informed by language use, performance, taking the directly opposite view to the generative model. [12][13] As a result, in functionalist theories emphasis is placed on experimental methods to understand the linguistic competence of individuals.

An argument used by functionalist linguists against the strict division between competence and performance and the primacy of competence, is that a language theory based on an autonomous level of competence encounters difficulties when trying to explain language change and grammaticalization, which can only be explained as changes in performance directly causing changes in the competence level.[14]

Another common critique of the generativist concept of competence is that the underlying presupposition that the felicity of grammatical constructions is judged based only on its relation to competence is incorrect and does not fit the data from actual usage where the felicity of an utterance often depends largely on the communicative context.[15][16]

Functionalist theorists have also argued that the competence/performance distinction basically serves to privilege data from certain linguistic genres and socio-linguistic registers that are judged by speakers to be more prestigious, while discounting evidence from low-prestige genres and registers as being simply mis-performance.[17]

Cognitive grammar, one of several functionalist theoretical frameworks, was developed by Ronald Langacker to understand language as a result of cognitive mechanisms and processes and not from the grammar of the language.[3] Within this school of thought, linguistic competence involves the ability to adequately construct and fully understand expressions by means of language itself and additional resources such as memory, intentionality, general knowledge etc. It also includes our knowledge to make abstractions, which allows us to conceive of words in isolation.[8]

Competence in Psycholinguistics

Psycholinguistics is primarily concerned with language as a psychological phonomenon.[18] It provides insights into how we assemble our own speech and writing and how we understand that of others; into how we store and use vocabulary; into how we manage to acquire language in the first place.[19] According to experimental linguist N.S. Sutherland, the task of psycholinguistics is not to confirm Chomsky's account of linguistic competence by undertaking experiments. It is by doing experiments, to find out what are the mechanisms that underlie linguistic competence.[20] Psycholinguistics generally do not see the distinction between performance and competence to accurately reflect the empirical data, but tend to prefer usage based theories.[21]

There are 3 important elements of psycholinguistics that are used to describe the mechanisms underlying our language understanding and production.

(i) The language signal

This refers to all forms of language expression, such as writing and speech, which are generated and perceived by language users. The most striking characteristic of the language signal is its perceptual invariance, both in writing and in speech, as there is always a salient and stable form that stands out against its physical environment. In our perception of such forms, gaps are closed, and irregularities are overlooked.[18]

(ii) Operations of our neuropsychological system

The operations of our neuropsychological systems determine how language signals are perceived and generated. For both speech and writing, there are two very different sorts of biological system involved. Speech involves auditory pathways from sensory organs to the brain then the vocal tract whilst writing involves motor pathways from sensory organs to the brain followed by the hand-arm system. However, they do have a similarity in that both involve short pathways to the central processing areas in the brain, regarded as the central language area.[18]

(iii) Language System

This is more abstract than the first two since it may be implemented even when we are not using palpable language signals at all, as in silent verbal reasoning, contemplation of our language and general language knowledge .[18]

Communicative competence

Another functionalist theory advances the notion of communicative competence, which focuses on socially-situated performance, was developed by Dell Hymes in response to the abstract nature of linguistic competence.[22] [23]Communicative competence is also sometimes referred to as pragmatic or sociolinguistic competence, especially when the emphasis is on how to interpret the speaker's intended meaning in a particular utterance, apart from the literal meaning.[24]

The major criticism towards Chomsky's notion of linguistic competence by Hymes is the inadequate distinction of competence and performance. Furthermore, he commented that it is unreal and that no significant progress in linguistics is possible without studying forms along with the ways in which they are used. As such, linguistic competence should fall under the domain of communicative competence since it comprises four competence areas, namely, linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse and strategic.[25]

Related areas of study

Linguistic competence is commonly used and discussed in many language acquisition studies. Some of the more common ones are in the language acquisition of children, aphasics and multilinguals.

Child language

The language development of a child since birth to the time when he or she is able to utter full sentences is much studied. One view, strongly advocated by Chomsky, is that this ability is innate and that a universal grammar governs the human language system. He proposes the language acquisition device (LAD), which is able to encode the major principles of a language and its grammatical structures in a child's brain. Children can then learn new vocabulary and apply the syntactic structures from the LAD to form sentences. His idea of the universal grammar thus, indicates that this theory can be extended to other languages such that all of them contain nouns, verbs, consonants and vowels and children appears to be 'hard-wired' to acquire the grammar.[26]

Another view, held by scientists specializing in Language acquisition such as Tomasello argues that young children's early language is concrete and item-based which implies that their speech is based on the lexical items known to them from the environment and the language of their caretakers. In addition, children do not produce creative utterances about past experiences and future expectations because they have not had enough exposure to their target language to do so. Thus, this indicates that the exposure to language plays more of a role in a child's linguistic competence than just their innate abilities.[27]


Aphasia refers to a family of clinically diverse disorders that affect the ability to communicate by oral or written language, or both, following brain damage. It is an umbrella concept combining a multiplicity of deficits involving one or more aspects of language use.[28] In aphasia, the inherent neurological damage is frequently assumed by some to be a loss of implicit linguistic competence that has damaged or wiped out neural centers or pathways that are necessary for maintenance of the language rules and representations needed to communicate. The measurement of implicit language competence, although apparently necessary and satisfying for theoretic linguistics, is complexly interwoven with performance factors. Transience, stimulability, and variability in aphasia language use provide evidence for an access deficit model that supports performance loss.[29]


The definition of a multilingual [nb 4] is one that has not always been very clear-cut. In defining a multilingual, the pronunciation, morphology and syntax used by the speaker in the language are key criteria used in the assessment. Sometimes the mastery of the vocabulary is also taken into consideration but it is not the most important criteria as one can acquire the lexicon in the language without knowing the proper use of it.

When discussing the linguistic competence of a multilingual, both communicative competence and grammatical competence are often taken into consideration as it is imperative for a speaker to have the knowledge to use language correctly and accurately. To test for grammatical competence in a speaker, grammaticality judgments of utterances are often used. Communicative competence on the other hand, is assessed through the use of appropriate utterances in different setting.[24]

Understanding humour

Language is often implicated in humor. In relation to the generative grammar, the relationship between deep structure and surface structure can be easily demonstrated by the structural ambiguity of sentences which is a key source for jokes. For instance Groucho Marx's line from Animal Crackers: One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas; how he got into my pyjamas I'll never know. The humor aspect lies in the fact that the surface structure of the main sentence expresses two possible grammatical sentences, in my pyjamas I shot an elephant and I shot an elephant who was wearing my pyjamas. Hence, the discrete unit in my pyjamas plays a different grammatical role in the deep structure of the sentence.[4]

Propositions by linguists such as Victor Raskin and Salvatore Attardo have been made stating that there are certain linguistic mechanisms (part of our linguistic competence) underlying our ability to understand humor and determine if something was meant to be a joke. Raskin puts forth a formal semantic theory of humor, which is now widely known as the semantic script theory of humor(SSTH). The semantic theory of humour is designed to model the native speaker's intuition with regard to humor or, in other words, his humor competence. The theory models and thus defines the concept of funniness and is formulated for an ideal speaker-hearer community i.e. for people whose senses of humor are exactly identical. Raskin's semantic theory of humor consists of two components - the set of all scripts available to speakers and a set of combinatorial rules. The term "script" used by Raskin in his semantic theory is used to refer to the lexical meaning of a word. The function of the combinatorial rules is then to combine all possible meaning of the scripts. Hence, Raskin posits that these are the two components which allows us to interpret humor.[30]

See also


  1. ^ In his use of "infinite number", Chomsky assumed no upper bound for the length of a sentence. See countable infinity.
  2. ^ The term 'grammar' here is used in its broadest sense, referring to the system of linguistic knowledge in the mind of the speaker. It is not limited to syntax but also is extended to include sound and meaning.
  3. ^ The Five Major Components of the Generative Grammar
    • The lexicon contains a list of the formatives of the language and their syntactic, phonological and the semantic properties. It also contains a set of redundancy rules which express morphological and semantic relationships among lexical items.
    • The base component contains a context-free phrase structure grammar, consisting of a set of unordered rules which collectively expand the symbol S into phrase markers whose preterminal strings are lexical category symbols. The base also contains a set of lexical insertion rules, which freely insert lexical items by category into the preterminal strings to form deep structure.
    • The transformational component consists of a set of transformations which collectively map deep structures.
    • The phonological component maps surface structures into phonetic representations, as proposed in Chomsky and Halle(1968).
    • The semantic component consists of at least four subcomponents: functional structure, modal structure, coreference relations and focus and presupposition.
  4. ^ The term multilingual is also commonly used to refer to a bilingual.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Chomsky, Noam. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. ^ Kroy, Moshe. (1974). The Conscience, A Structural Theory. Israel: Keterpress Enterprise
  3. ^ a b Evans, Vyvyan. and Green, Melanie. (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  4. ^ a b c d Phillips, John. and Tan, Chrissie (The Literary Encyclopedia ), Competence,  Retrieved on November 17, 2010
  5. ^ a b Rowe, Bruce M. and Levine, Diane P. (2006). A Concise Introduction to Linguistics. USA: Pearson Education
  6. ^ Jackendoff, R. 1997. The architecture of the language faculty. Cambridge (Massachusetts): The MIT Press.
  7. ^ Pustejovsky, J. 1998a. The generative lexicon. Cambridge (Massachusetts) & London (England): The MIT Press.
  8. ^ a b Paridis, Carita. (2003) Is the notion of Linguistic Competence relevant in Cognitive Linguistics?,  Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics 1. (pp 207-231). John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  9. ^ a b Jackendoff, Ray S.(1972).Semantic Interpretation in Generative Grammar.The MIT Press Classics. ISBN 0-262-10013-4
  10. ^ Pustejovsky, James. (1995). The Generative Lexicon. The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England. ISBN 0-262-16158-3
  11. ^ A.Fodor, Jerry. and J.Katz,Jerrold.(1964).The Structure of Language, Readings in the Philosophy of Language. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  12. ^ Newmeyer, Frederick. 2001. "The Prague School and North American functionalist approaches to syntax" Journal of Linguistics 37, pp. 101-126."Since most American functionalists adhere to this trend, I will refer to it and its practitioners with the initials `USF'. Some of the more prominent USFs are Joan Bybee, William Croft, Talmy Givon, John Haiman, Paul Hopper, Marianne Mithun and Sandra Thompson. In its most extreme form (Hopper 1987, 1988), USF rejects the Saussurean dichotomies such as langue vs. parôle. For early interpretivist approaches to focus, see Chomsky (1971) and Jackendoff (1972). parole and synchrony vs. diachrony. All adherents of this tendency feel that the Chomskyan advocacy of a sharp distinction between competence and performance is at best unproductive and obscurantist; at worst theoretically unmotivated. "
  13. ^ Bybee, Joan. "Usage-based phonology." p. 213 in Darnel, Mike (ed). 1999. Functionalism and Formalism in Linguistics: General papers. John Benjamins Publishing Company
  14. ^ see e.g. Haspelmath, Martin. "Why is grammaticalization irreversible?" Linguistics 37–6 (1999), 1043–1068
  15. ^ see e.g. Coseriu, Eugenio. 1985. "Linguistic Competence: What Is It Really? The Modern Language Review, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Oct., 1985), pp. xxv-xxxv
  16. ^ Lakoff, George. 1973. Fuzzy grammar and the performance/competence terminology game. Chicago Linguistic Society 9.271–91.
  17. ^ Noonan, Michael. "Non-Structuralist Syntax" p. 21. in Darnel, Mike (ed). 1999. Functionalism and Formalism in Linguistics: General papers. John Benjamins Publishing Company
  18. ^ a b c d Garman, Michael. (1990) Psycholinguistics.Routledge.ISBN 0-415-25890-1
  19. ^ Field, John. (2004) Psycholinguistics: the key concepts.
  20. ^ Sutherland, N.S. (1966) Comments on the Fodor and Garrett paper. In Lyons and Wales (eds.) 1966. (pp 161-162).
  21. ^ Newmeyer, Frederick. 2003. Grammar is grammar and usage is usage. Language. 79:682–707
  22. ^ Hymes, Dell. (2000 [1965]) On communicative competence. In Alessandro Duranti (ed) Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader (pp 53-73). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  23. ^ Hymes, Dell. 1971. Competence and performance in linguistic theory. Language acquisition: Models and methods (1971), pp. 3-28.
  24. ^ a b Myers-Scotton, Carol. (2006). Multiple Voices : an introduction to bilingualism . Australia: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 9780631219361
  25. ^ Linguistic and Communicative Competence, Retrieved on November 17, 2010
  26. ^ Child Language Acquisition - Chomsky, Crystal, Aitchison and Piaget,  Retrieved on November 17, 2010
  27. ^ Tomasello, Michael. (2000). Do Young Children have Adult Syntactic Competence?,  Cognition 74. (pp 209-253). Elseiver Science B.V. Retrieved on November 17, 2010
  28. ^ Goodglass, Harold. (1993). Understanding Aphasia. Academic Press, inc. ISBN 0-12-290040-5
  29. ^ LaPointe, Leonard L. (2008).Linguistic Competence in Aphasia LaPointe Perspectives on Augmentative and Alternative Communication. 17: 87-92.
  30. ^ Raskins, Victor. (1985). Semantic mechanisms of humor. D. Reidel Publishing Company. ISBN 90-227-1821-0

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