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What Is Linguistic Competence?

By David Bishop
Updated May 23, 2024
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Linguistic competence is a term used by speech experts and anthropologists to describe how language is defined within a community of speakers. This term applies to mastering the combination of sounds, syntax and semantics known as the grammar of a language. People with such competence have learned to utilize the grammar of their spoken language to generate an unlimited amount of statements. This term is distinct from the concept of communicative competence, which determines what is socially appropriate speech.

This concept was first developed by linguist Noam Chomsky in the mid-1960s. Chomsky developed several theories aimed at describing how language was acquired and functioned within a culture. Linguistic competence is part of a larger theory of linguistic behavior known as universal grammar, which explains language as a natural ability with which children are born and which becomes refined as they develop. This theory lies in contrast with the idea that speech is strictly a learned behavior.

Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar contained several key concepts about language, including linguistic competence, linguistic performance and communicative competence. Chomsky defined linguistic competence as an idealized understanding of the rules and construction of a given language. This includes the distinct sounds used in the language, the combination of these sounds, the creation of sentences and the interpretation of a sentence. Once a speaker masters this set of rules, he or she can use this grammar to produce new phrases that will be understood by all speakers of the same language.

Linguistic performance and communicative competence are concepts related to linguistic competence but are applied to language as it is actually used rather than as an ideal construct. Linguistic performance is the practical application of speech with the grammatical flaws and mistakes that exist among real-world speakers. This allows speakers to understand each other despite grammatical flaws and differences in dialect. Communicative competence refers to the rules that govern the kinds of speech allowed within the cultural context.

Chomsky’s theories sparked debate among linguists and have continued to influence debate around the acquisition and use of language. Some linguistic theorists see linguistic competence as a learned behavior rather than an innate function of the human brain. Other researchers ignore Chomsky’s separate definitions of competence and performance and study language as a practical function of human behavior.

The concept of linguistic competence remains an important aspect of linguistic theory and education. It is a subject touched on by linguistics courses within the English curriculum and is dealt with in depth in linguistic and cultural anthropology. Linguistic researchers and theorists continue to study and refine this concept through fieldwork and clinical investigation.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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