Linguistic Performance

Creating and Understanding Sentences in a Language

Tourist shopping at handicraft market, Mwenge, Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania
 Tom Cockrem/Getty Images

Linguistic performance is the ability to produce and comprehend sentences in a language.

Since the publication of Noam Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax in 1965, most linguists have made a distinction between linguistic competence, a speaker's tacit knowledge of the structure of a language, and linguistic performance, which is what a speaker actually does with this knowledge.

See also:

Factors That Influence Linguistic Performance

" Linguistic performance and its products are in fact complex phenomena. The nature and characteristics of a particular instance of linguistic performance and its product(s) are, in reality, determined by a combination of factors:

(6) Some of the factors which influence linguistic performance are:
(a) the linguistic competence or unconscious linguistic knowledge of the speaker-hearer,
(b) the nature and limitations of the speaker-hearer's speech production and speech perception mechanisms,
(c) the nature and limitations of the speaker-hearer's memory, concentration, attention and other mental capacities,
(d) the social environment and status of the speaker-hearer,
(e) the dialectal environment of the speaker-hearer,
(f) the idiolect and individual style of speaking of the speaker-hearer,
(g) the speaker-hearer's factual knowledge and view of the world in which he lives,
(h) the speaker-hearer's state of health, his emotional state, and other similar incidental circumstances.

Each of the factors mentioned in (6) is a variable in linguistic performance and, as such, may influence the nature and characteristics of a particular instance of linguistic performance and its product(s)."
Rudolf P. Botha, The Conduct of Linguistic Inquiry: A Systematic Introduction to the Methodology of Generative Grammar. Mouton, 1981

Chomsky on 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 are similar to Saussure's parole, and is called linguistic performance."
    Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth, 2010
  • "Chomsky divides linguistic theory into two parts: linguistic competence and linguistic performance. The former concerns the tacit knowledge of grammar, the latter the realization of this knowledge in actual performance. Chomsky distinctly relegates linguistic performance to the peripherals of linguistic inquiry. Linguistic performance as the actual use of language in concrete situations is viewed as 'fairly degenerate in quality' (Chomsky 1965, 31) because performance is full of errors.
  • " . . . Chomsky's linguistic competence corresponds to la langue, and Chomsky's linguistic performance corresponds to la parole. Chomsky's linguistic competence, however, because it is concerned primarily with the underlying competence, is viewed as superior to de Saussure's la langue."
    Marysia Johnson, A Philosophy of Second Language Acquisition. Yale University Press, 2004
  • "Competence concerns our abstract knowledge of our language. It is about the judgments we would make about language if we had sufficient time and memory capacity. In practice, of course, our actual linguistic performance—the sentences that we actually produce--is limited by these factors. Furthermore, the sentences we actually produce often use the more simple grammatical constructions. Our speech is full of false starts, hesitations, speech errors, and corrections. The actual ways in which we produce and understand sentences are also in the domain of performance.
  • "In his more recent work, Chomsky (1986) distinguished between externalized language (E-language) and internalized language (I-language). For Chomsky, E-language linguistics is about collecting samples of language and understanding their properties; in particular, it is about describing the regularities of a language in the form of a grammar. I-language linguistics is about what speakers know about their language. For Chomsky, the primary aim of modern linguistics should be to specify I-language: it is to produce a grammar that describes our knowledge of the language, not the sentences we actually produce."
    Trevor A. Harley, The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory, 2nd ed. Psychology Press, 2001
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Performance." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Linguistic Performance. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Performance." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).