Explain the difference between competence and performance and discuss whether this is something that linguists should take a view on.
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Linguistics Coursework, LG102 Paula Reimers N.B.: Sources referenced in Footnotes, see Bibliography (page X) for full details of sources. Explain the difference between competence and performance and discuss whether this is something that linguists should take a view on. Introduction Throughout the course of linguistic study, the question of language origins as well as man's capacity to utilise its various forms has been constantly debated. Whilst the widely accepted view (propagated by Noam Chomsky) is that humans have an innate capacity for language usage, many linguists still subscribe to the consensus of Saussure, that language simply transcended generations as an effective means of communication and slowly evolved into its present form, its true origins extraneous to linguistic study. Whilst these theories have been supported by much hypothetical argument, unassailable evidence has yet to be discovered that serves to wholly validate either one. Though their fundamental basis is evident in both Sapir and Saussure's work, the terms Competence and Performance were initially formulated by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s to define the scope of linguistic enquiry. Chomsky wanted to associate language structure to a template common amongst all languages (which he called 'Universal Grammar') to prove that the existence of 'the language gene' (i.e.: that language utilisation is an inherent human attribute). As well as this, Chomsky wished to provide support for his ideas on 'Generative Grammar' by formulising a "fully explicit and mechanical outline of the rules governing the construction of the English language"1. Thus the following ideology was formed2: - Linguistic Performance - The individual interpretation of language in its usage.
Indeed, Saussure often dismissed the origins of language as irrelevant, considering the fundamental study of linguistics to primarily relate to "existing idioms"9 prevalent in the communal language. Theory C - Wilhelm von Humboldt. Wilhelm von Humboldt was a figurative German polymath whose work on linguistic variability was prominent in the 19th Century. Humboldt's distinctions were in turn very similar to that of 'Langue' and 'Parole'. He noted that language makes infinite use of a finite medium (i.e.: existing words therein), meaning that unlimited sentences can be constructed from any language. Humboldt observed that "language can be divided up into an infinity as the sole language in the one and the same nation yet at the same time these many variants are united into one language having a definite character"10. Humboldt's views were aligned with that of the classic linguistic ideologically, agreeing with Saussure that the origins of language were inconclusive and that each respective language had its own 'Innere Sprachform' (internal structure). Humboldt's ideas were also the precursor (albeit less successful) to Chomsky as he stated that "a people's speech is their spirit, and their spirit is their speech"11 and were thus inseparable, highlighting what Chomsky would later identify as 'Universal Grammar'. Discussion Despite the great deal of debate surrounding this topic, there is little evidence that serves to wholly valiadate or nullify either argument, the established opinion (Saussure, Humboldt, as well as Sapir and Trubetzkoy) maintaining that the origins of language are inconclusive, Competence is simply established necessity (the immersion of people in language from an early age)
However, dismissal of this issue from many leading linguists (Saussure and Bickerton being the two most renowned examples) illustrates that study can continue without consideration of this and, coupled with the lack of conclusive evidence, makes these ideas little more than fantastical suppositions. Conclusion In summary, there are many arguments regarding the distinction between Competence and Performance and its relation to the study of modern linguistics. The broad definition of Competence would be the individual's idea on the structure of their respective language whilst Performance is regarded as their presentation of the aforemented within society. Although it is this inability to discern focused distinctions between these two entities, perpetuated through the conflicting arguments and lack of conclusive evidence (a reliance on 'theories' being the basis of both Chomsky and Saussure's reasoning), that provides the main stumbling blocks for linguists in addressing this issue seriously and formulating decisive opinions. The two primary views held on the classification of Competence were formulated by Chomsky and Saussure. Whilst the former regards human Competence of language to be an innate attribute from birth, the latter considers language Competence to be ascertained through language immersion from birth. The two hold similarly conflicting views on Performance, Chomsky regarding it as irrelevant due to its many anomalies (influenced by many factors aside from language knowledge) while Saussure considers individual language interpretation to be the basis of linguistic examination. In short, though the definition of both Performance and Competence is vague and dependant upon opinion, the fundamental difference between the two is that, while the former is focused upon the usage of language in society the latter is concerned with the structure and understanding of language in relation to the individual. WORD COUNT 2,754.
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