April 18, 2024

Competence and Performance in Language Learning

by Mateusz Wiącek

When delving into the realm of language learning, it’s crucial to grasp two key concepts: competence and performance. These terms were introduced by Chomsky in the 1960s to describe different aspects of language knowledge and usage.

What are Competence and Performance?

  • Competence: This refers to the knowledge a speaker-hearer possesses about their language. It’s like understanding the rules and structure of a language in your mind.
  • Performance: On the other hand, performance is about actually using language in real-life situations. It’s like putting your language knowledge into action during conversations or writing.

Initially, Chomsky used “competence” to describe language knowledge, but later he replaced it with “I-language,” referring to internal language properties. Similarly, “performance” was swapped with “E-language,” focusing on external language use. Chomsky aimed to describe the innate mechanism behind language competence.

The Development of Competence

For native speakers, competence evolves over time. It’s like a journey from the initial state, determined by genetics, to a mature state reached through childhood experiences. This development is influenced by both innate language properties and the language environment. Chomsky termed the initial state theory as “universal grammar” (UG) and the mature state as simply “grammar.”

Bridging the Gap: Competence and Performance

Though competence exists in the mind, it’s not directly observable. Linguists have to rely on performance to understand competence. However, in real-life situations, performance might not always reflect true competence due to various factors like memory limitations or distractions.

Universal Grammar: A Key Player

Universal Grammar (UG) plays a vital role in language acquisition. It sets the principles and boundaries within which languages can vary. For language learners, accessing UG might influence their learning journey and teaching methodologies.

Views on Access to UG in Second Language Learning

The question arises: Can adult language learners access UG, and if so, how does it affect second language acquisition? There are four main views:

  • No Access Hypothesis: Adults have no access to UG. They rely on their first language and general problem-solving abilities.
  • Strong Continuity Hypothesis: L2 learners have the same access to UG as L1 learners. This explains their ability to adjust to different language settings.
  • Indirect Access Hypothesis: L2 learners access UG through their knowledge of L1. They might reset parameters when they realize differences between L1 and L2.
  • Weak Continuity Hypothesis: L2 learners have only partial access to UG. This hypothesis aims to reconcile conflicting data but remains a subject of debate.


Understanding the interplay between competence and performance is crucial in language learning. While competence represents internal language knowledge, performance reflects its external use. The role of Universal Grammar in second language acquisition remains a topic of ongoing discussion, offering various hypotheses but no definitive answers yet.

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