Linguistic competence

Linguistic competence

Linguistic competence is defined as the ability of a speaker-hearer to speak and understand language in a grammatically correct manner . It is one of the two elements in Chomsky's performance/competence distinction. Linguistic competence is an area of study in the field of intercultural communication founded by the linguist Noam Chomsky. Linguistic competence is the use of grammatical rules of a language, whereas communicative competence is the use of social language rules. This broader knowledge to communicate successfully within the norms of a culture’s language was introduced by the linguist Dell Hymes. Dell Hymes expanded on Noam Chomsky’s view of linguistic competence by considering the social factors of a culture’s language.


Noam Chomsky founded the idea of communicating with the understanding of grammatically correct expressions. Chomsky took more of a textbook approach to analyzing language than a real-world use of the language. According to Damerau, to understand Chomsky’s approach to linguistic competence, two things must be made clear: (1) the subject matter of linguistics and (2) the properties that are necessary in a model for it to be regarded as an adequate model for language. In other words, Chomsky had an ideal approach to language which consisted of an undiversified speaker-hearer environment. In real-world situations, it is difficult for a speaker-hearer to exercise their linguistic competence. According to Ottenheimer, Chomsky actually thought of real situations as “distractions.” Chomsky feels that people cannot successfully practice being linguistically competent due to “distractions” such as social norms. The interference from social norms in communication forces the speaker to develop communication competence. Although someone who is speaking in a linguistically competent manner may use perfect grammar, a communicatively competent speaker would take into consideration the appropriateness of the situation. Analyzing how the people in a culture use linguistic competence to communicate can determine the rules of a language.


A linguistically competent person would know when to use present and past tense. For example, saying "I go" versus "I went," which are present tense and past tense, respectively. One would say in English "I go to school" if one were currently in the habit of going to school, or "I went to school" if they have finished school.

Another example of linguistic competence based on Ottenheimer's findings was the use of tu and vous in French. Tu and vous are two forms of the pronoun meaning "you (singular)" and "you (plural)," respectively. For example, speaking to one person would require the use of "you," whereas speaking to a group of people would be similar to saying "you all.



Damerau, F.J. (1971). Markov Models and Linguistic Theory: An Experimental Study of a Model for English. Paris: Mouton.

Ottenheimer, H. J. (2006). The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Belmont: Thomson Higher Education.

Paulston, C.B. Linguistic and Communicative Competence: Topics in ESL. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters LTD.

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