Language and Linguistics

Competence and Performance

Competence and Performance in linguistics prospect

The concept of communicative competence *


Communicative competence is one of the most important concepts in applied linguistics, both in the study of second language acquisition and, at a more practical level, in the teaching of languages. Indeed, communicative competence is a key concept when trying to answer the following questions:

  • What is acquiring a language?
  • What knowledge, skills or abilities are needed to speak a language?
  • What is the purpose of language teaching?

Applied linguistics has often taken as a basis theories of theoretical linguistics or other areas of knowledge, such as psychology or anthropology, to develop theoretical models and constructs that may be appropriate for their own purposes. The concept of «communicative competence» has its origin in the concept of «theoretical linguistic competence» in the framework of generative grammar, but has also been influenced by theories of anthropology and sociolinguistics. Therefore, it is a concept that, in the same way as the acquisition of second languages ​​or language teaching, has an interdisciplinary nature (Cenoz, 1996).

  1. The linguistic competence

The important dissemination of the concept of communicative competence in language acquisition and teaching studies is directly related to the distinction made by Chomsky (1965) between competence and performance:

Linguistic theory focuses mainly on the ideal speaker-listener of a completely homogeneous speaking community that knows their language perfectly and is not affected by irrelevant grammar conditions such as memory limitations, distractions, attention changes and interest and mistakes in applying their knowledge of the language to real acting (Chomsky, 1965: 3) .

Therefore, for Chomsky, competence is the knowledge that the speaker-listener has of the language, and acting is the actual use of the language in concrete situations. Chomsky is interested in studying competition, not acting. From the perspective of the study of language as a system, he is not interested in the use of language or in the acquisition and teaching of languages. His interest is directed to development in a linguistic theory focused mainly on grammar rules.

Although Chomsky initially accepted that all aspects related to use were included in the performance, he later acknowledged that some aspects of use are systematic and governed by rules. Thus, in 1980, he recognized that, in addition to grammatical competence, there is also pragmatic competence; it refers to the knowledge of the conditions and the appropriate mode of use according to various purposes, and that, the grammatical competence, referred to the knowledge of the form (Chomsky, 1980: 224).

In addition to focusing on knowledge and not on the ability or ability to use the latter in interpersonal communication, the concept of “linguistic competence” is linked to the knowledge of the language by native monolingual speakers. The concept of “ideal native speaker” is difficult to accept since not all speakers of a language are competent and can distinguish grammatical sentences from non-grammatical sentences. In addition, non-native speakers can distinguish certain types of grammatical and non-grammatical sentences more accurately than some native speakers.

Chomsky’s concept of competence caused important reactions among researchers outside the framework of generative grammar (Lyons, 1970; Campbell and Wales, 1970; Hymes, 1972). It is considered inappropriate because it is limited to the linguistic competence of the ideal speaker-listener in a homogeneous society and does not consider central aspects of language use. Indeed, the concept of competence proposed by Chomsky implies an abstraction and idealization, which does not have a direct relationship with the ability and ability to use one or more languages ​​in interpersonal communication by monolingual and multilingual speakers in multicultural societies. It is a useful concept within generative grammar, but that becomes too reductionist if it is applied to language acquisition and teaching.

However, it is necessary to recognize, as Llurdá (Llurdá 2000: 86) considers, that Chomsky’s definition represents the starting point of other later approaches and that, in addition, controversy over the concept of linguistic competence has favored the acceptance of the concept of communicative competence as a fundamental concept in the acquisition and teaching of languages.

2. Linguistic competence and communicative competence

Chomsky’s reaction to the concept of “competition” focused on highlighting the social nature of the competition and the importance of the statements being appropriate to the context in which the communication takes place. Thus Lyons (1970: 287) considers that:

The ability to use language with correction in a variety of socially determined situations is as central a part of linguistic competence as the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences.

Campbell and Wales also insist on the idea that the grammaticality of sentences is not enough: “the ability to produce or understand sentences that are not so much grammatical but something more important, appropriate to the context in which they take place” (Campbell and Wales , 1970: 247).

Researchers who criticize the concept of “linguistic competence” consider that the concept of “competence” in generative grammar is reductionist because it is not considered elements of the sociolinguistic context. Without a doubt, the opposite reaction of greater importance has been that of Hymes (1972), who considers that linguistic competence is insufficient because the statements must also be appropriate and acceptable in the context in which they are used:

There are rules of use without which grammar rules would be useless. Just as syntactic rules can control aspects of phonology, and semantic rules may control aspects of syntax, the rules of speech acts act as factors that control the linguistic form as a whole (Hymes, 1972: 278) .

Hymes proposed the concept of “communicative competence”, which includes the rules of use referred to. It includes the referential and social meaning of language, and not only refers to the grammaticality of sentences, but also to whether they are appropriate or not in context. For Hymes, communicative competence has four dimensions: the degree to which something is formally possible (grammaticality), the degree to which something is feasible, the degree to which something is appropriate and the degree to which something occurs in reality. Therefore, we can see that concepts such as being appropriate or acceptable are part, as well as being grammatically correct, of communicative competence. Hymes states that competence is the general underlying knowledge and ability to use the language possessed by the speaker-listener. According to this author, speakers consider factors that intervene in communication when they use the language. These factors include the characteristics of the interlocutors or the relationships that bind us to the interlocutor. Depending on the different situations, speakers may use different records.

The concept of “communicative competence” proposed by Hymes has great strength as an organizing tool in the social sciences and is often used in linguistics and psycholinguistics, especially in relation to the acquisition of the first and second languages. However, there are many researchers who have complemented some aspects of the definition of communicative competence. For example, Gumperz (1972) considers that this is what the speaker needs to communicate in contexts that are culturally significant. Saville-Troike (1989: 21) believes that communicative competence also includes aspects of communication, such as talking with people of different statuses, knowing routines in the alternate shifts or others related to the use of language in social contexts specific.

The communicative competence is not only an extension of the linguistic competence, to which the rules related to the use have been added. It is not only a quantitative addition, it is also and above all, a qualitative extension. The concept of “linguistic competence” refers to the knowledge of certain rules while communicative competence also includes the ability or skill to use that knowledge. This ability to use knowledge can be distinguished from acting, even if only acting is observable. Competence is, in this sense, knowledge and skill, while acting is what the speaker does in the act of communication.

Another important difference between linguistic and communicative competences corresponds to the dynamic nature of the second versus the static nature of the first. Linguistic competence is innate, has a biological basis, is static, has an absolute character and does not imply comparison. Communicative competence is a dynamic concept that depends on the negotiation of meaning between two or more people who share the same symbolic system to some extent. As Savignon (1983) proposes, it has an interpersonal and not intrapersonal character. In addition, the communicative competence has a relative and not absolute character and the different users of the language can present different degrees of communicative competence. The communicative competence, therefore,

The perspectives from which the concepts of linguistic and communicative competence have been proposed differ because the lines of research for which these concepts are necessary are different. Generative grammar focuses mainly on the study of the syntactic aspects of language as a system, while other perspectives, related to applied linguistics and anthropology, need this concept because it reflects a broader perspective of language study and includes other contextual and interdisciplinary areas related to the use of language.

Taylor (1988) considers that every major conceptual confusion is due to Chomsky being interested in competition as a state and not as a process, and in knowledge and not in skill. Widdowson (1995: 84) expresses the differences between the two concepts:

For Chomsky, then, competence is grammatical knowledge as a deep-rooted state of mind below the language level. It is not an ability to do anything. It is not even the ability to form or understand sentences, because knowledge can exist without it being accessible (…). For Hymes, on the other hand, competition is the ability to do something: to use the language. For him grammar knowledge is a resource, not an abstract cognitive configuration existing in its own right as a mental structure. The way in which this knowledge becomes use is, therefore, a central issue, and is necessarily a component of communicative competence.


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