The concept of competence versus performance is fundamental to the study of language. This distinction recognizes that the “mistakes” people make when speaking (performance) may not accurately reflect what they actually know (competence). We all have made “slips of the tongue,” where we substitute a word or sound for another or use a different grammatical form than intended, with sometimes humorous results. For example, you might say you need to go “shake a tower” instead of “take a shower,” ask someone to be “pacific” rather than be “specific,” or accuse someone of telling a “lack of pies” rather than “pack of lies.” Performance errors can also be found in comprehension, such as mishearing “just a position” for “juxtaposition.”
These kinds of mistakes do not mean that we have an inaccurate knowledge of language. Rather, a variety of conditions, both internal to the individual (i.e., memory limitations or fatigue) and external (i.e., distractions or interruptions) can cause a difference between what people know about their language and how they apply that knowledge in real situations.
Noam Chomsky defined competence as the underlying knowledge each speaker-hearer has about the language of his or her community. As such, competence is an ideal, which presupposes a “completely homogeneous speech-community.” It is hypothesized as a psychological or mental property or function and therefore cannot be directly observed. In contrast, performance refers to an actual communicative act of speaking or hearing. In this distinction, performance is an incomplete and inaccurate demonstration of what an individual knows about his or her language.
The competence-performance distinction is an important one in linguistics. One of the major goals of linguistic research is to discover how children develop language. Another is to understand how language functions within the human brain. One difficulty in conducting these types of language research is that actual speech contains errors. In 1965, Noam Chomsky argued that the focus of linguistic theory must be on the underlying language system (competence), not the act of speaking (performance). While performance errors may illuminate how language is perceived and organized in the brain, the goal of a theory of language is not a description of what people actually say. Rather, it is to describe the cognitive mechanism by which humans can produce an infinite number of sentences, many of which they have never heard, from a finite number of words and grammatical structures. Therefore, it is crucial to differentiate between competence and performance.
Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has undergone some criticism, such as for the emphasis on grammar in his definition of competence. Subsequently, Dell Hymes and others have introduced the concept of “communicative competence,” which refers to an individual’s knowledge of how to use language appropriately in different social and communicative contexts. The focus on language use has emerged in recent years in a variety of areas, including language socialization research. This type of study examines how children from different backgrounds are socialized to use language in culturally appropriate ways and how they develop understanding of the social organization and worldview of their cultural group through the development of their community’s language.
The distinction between competence and performance remains important to many areas of study (i.e., artificial intelligence and second language acquisition) and is widely applied. Nonetheless, as with the theory of language for which this distinction was originally proposed, many questions and controversies remain. Yet, for many, this is a useful heuristic device that allows us to consider and explain how in terms of our language abilities, as in many other areas of human cognition, we may know more than we can demonstrate through our actions in daily life.
- Broderick, P. B. (n.d.). Chomsky for philosopher Retrieved from http://www.personal.kent.edu/~pbohanbr/Webpage/New/newintro.html
- Brown, , Malmkjær, K., & Williams, J. (Eds.). (1996). Performance and competence in second language acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge: MIT
- Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in sociolinguistics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
- Szabó, G. (n.d.). Brief biography of Chomsky, Noam Avram (1928– ). Retrieved from http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/zs15/Chomsky.pdf