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Knowledge of Language is not the Same as Usage of it!

In the fascinating world of linguistics, two concepts often surface in discussions about language understanding and use: linguistic competence and linguistic performance. While these terms might sound technical, their concepts are quite straightforward and crucial for understanding how we use language in our daily lives.

Linguistic competence refers to the internal knowledge of a language that a person possesses. It's the mental reservoir of rules about syntax (how words are put together to form sentences), semantics (the meanings of words and sentences), and phonology (the sounds of a language). This knowledge is not about how much vocabulary a person knows, but rather about their grasp of how to construct sentences, use correct tenses, and apply language rules. For instance, even if a child doesn’t know the word "amphibious," their linguistic competence allows them to understand new words like this based on their existing knowledge of how English words are generally structured.

Linguistic performance, on the other hand, is about how this knowledge is actually used in real-life situations. It's one thing to know the rules of a language (competence) and another to apply them while speaking or writing (performance). Performance is influenced by non-linguistic factors like memory limitations, distractions, or emotional state. For example, someone might know the grammar rules perfectly (high linguistic competence) but still stumble over words when nervous or distracted (variable linguistic performance).

The distinction between these two concepts was popularized by linguist Noam Chomsky in the 1960s. He argued that a person’s linguistic competence is the idealized ability to use language, unaffected by psychological factors like memory constraints, whereas linguistic performance is the actual use of language in concrete situations. It's similar to knowing the rules of a game versus actually playing it. You might know every soccer rule (competence) but performing under the pressure of a real game (performance) is a different challenge.

One key aspect of this distinction is that linguistic competence is often uniform across a linguistic community. For example, most English speakers intuitively know that “I goed home” is incorrect, even if they can’t articulate the grammatical rule violated. This shared knowledge forms the basis of linguistic competence. In contrast, linguistic performance can vary greatly from person to person. Factors like stage fright, lack of practice, or even tiredness can impact how well one can articulate thoughts.

Understanding this distinction also helps in language learning and teaching. When learners make mistakes, it’s often not because they lack the underlying competence but because they struggle with performance aspects like recalling the right word or feeling confident enough to speak. It’s important for educators to recognize this and focus not just on teaching the rules of a language but also on helping students practice and build confidence in their use.

In conclusion, the concepts of linguistic competence and linguistic performance, though sounding abstract, are fundamental in understanding how language works. Linguistic competence is our internal knowledge of language rules, while linguistic performance is how we apply this knowledge in real-life situations. Recognizing the difference between the two can enhance our understanding of language learning, usage, and the challenges that come with it. It’s a reminder that knowing a language goes beyond mere vocabulary or grammar rules; it’s also about effectively applying this knowledge in our daily communication.


✦Chomsky, Noam. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

✦Fromkin V. Rodman R. & Hyams N. (2003). An introduction to language (10th ed.). Thomson/Heinle. 


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