Linguistic Competence: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

linguistic competence
"Linguistic competence," says Frederick J. Newmeyer, "is our tacit knowledge of the structure of our language" (Grammatical Theory: Its Limits and Its Possibilities, 1983). (Lizzie Roberts/Getty Images)

The term linguistic competence refers to the unconscious knowledge of grammar that allows a speaker to use and understand a language. Also known as grammatical competence or I-language. Contrast with linguistic performance.

As used by Noam Chomsky and other linguists, linguistic competence is not an evaluative term. Rather, it refers to the innate linguistic knowledge that allows a person to match sounds and meanings. In Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Chomsky wrote, "We thus make a fundamental distinction between competence (the speaker-hearer's knowledge of his language) and performance (the actual use of language in concrete situations)." Under this theory, linguistic competence only functions "properly" under idealized conditions, which would theoretically remove any obstacles of memory, distraction, emotion, and other factors that might cause even an eloquent native speaker to make or fail to notice grammatical mistakes. It's closely tied to the concept of generative grammar, which argues that all native speakers of a language have an unconscious understanding of the "rules" governing the language.

Many linguists have severely critiqued this distinction between competence and performance, arguing that it skews or ignores data and privileges certain groups over others. Linguist William Labov, for instance, said in a 1971 article, "It is now evident to many linguists that the primary purpose of the [performance/competence] distinction has been to help the linguist exclude data which he finds inconvenient to handle. ... If performance involves limitations of memory, attention, and articulation, then we must consider the entire English grammar to be a matter of performance." Other critics argue that the distinction makes other linguistic concepts difficult to explain or categorize, while still others argue that a meaningful distinction cannot be made because of how the two processes are inextricably linked.

Examples and Observations

"Linguistic competence constitutes knowledge of language, but that knowledge is tacit, implicit. This means that people do not have conscious access to the principles and rules that govern the combination of sounds, words, and sentences; however, they do recognize when those rules and principles have been violated. . . . For example, when a person judges that the sentence John said that Jane helped himself is ungrammatical, it is because the person has tacit knowledge of the grammatical principle that reflexive pronouns must refer to an NP in the same clause." (Eva M. Fernandez and Helen Smith Cairns, Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

Linguistic Competence and Linguistic Performance

"In [Noam] Chomsky's theory, our linguistic competence is our unconscious knowledge of languages and is similar in some ways to [Ferdinand de] Saussure's concept of langue, the organizing principles of a language. What we actually produce as utterances is similar to Saussure's parole, and is called linguistic performance. The difference between linguistic competence and linguistic performance can be illustrated by slips of the tongue, such as 'noble tons of soil' for 'noble sons of toil.' Uttering such a slip doesn't mean that we don't know English but rather that we've simply made a mistake because we were tired, distracted, or whatever. Such 'errors' also aren't evidence that you are (assuming you are a native speaker) a poor English speaker or that you don't know English as well as someone else does. It means that linguistic performance is different from linguistic competence. When we say that someone is a better speaker than someone else (Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, was a terrific orator, much better than you might be), these judgements tell us about performance, not competence. Native speakers of a language, whether they are famous public speakers or not, don't know the language any better than any other speaker in terms of linguistic competence." (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth, 2010)

"Two language users may have the same 'program' for carrying out specific tasks of production and recognition, but differ in their ability to apply it because of exogenous differences (such as short-term memory capacity). The two are accordingly equally language-competent but not necessarily equally adept at making use of their competence.

"The linguistic competence of a human being should accordingly be identified with that individual's internalized 'program' for production and recognition. While many linguists would identify the study of this program with the study of performance rather than competence, it should be clear that this identification is mistaken since we have deliberately abstracted away from any consideration of what happens when a language user actually attempts to put the program to use. A major goal of the psychology of language is to construct a viable hypothesis as to the structure of this program . . .." (Michael B. Kac, Grammars and Grammaticality. John Benjamins, 1992)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Competence: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Linguistic Competence: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Competence: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).