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Reading – week 1

Linguistics and applied linguistics: a difficult relationship

One way of approaching the practical and professional problems of these areas is by relating them
to what has been said about language in linguistics – the academic discipline concerned with the
study of language in general. Like any discipline, linguistics looks for generalities underlying actual
appearances, and so in some degree is bound to represent an abstract idealization of language
rather than the way it is experienced in the real world. How closely the resulting models of language
correspond with experience will vary considerably, and there are different and opposed schools of
linguistics to draw upon.
One particularly influential type of idealization is that used in the generative linguistics introduced by
Noam Chomsky from the late 1950s onward. In his view, the proper subject matter of linguistics
should be the representation of language in the mind (competence), rather than the way in which
people actually use language in everyday life (performance). Chomsky’s claim is that this internal
language is essentially biological rather than social and is separate from, and relatively uninfluenced
by, outside experience. It is to be investigated not through the consideration of language use in
context but rather through the consideration of invented sentences intuitively felt to be acceptable
instances of the language. The relationship between this highly abstract model and ordinary
experience of language is very remote. The question for applied linguistics is whether such a
connection can be made and, if so, what can then be made of the connection.
Chomsky separates competence and performance; he describes ’competence' as an idealized
capacity that is located as a psychological or mental property or function and ‘performance’ as the
production of actual utterances. In short, competence involves “knowing” the language and
performance involves “doing” something with the language. The difficulty with this construct is that
it is very difficult to assess competence without assessing performance. Noting the distinction
between competence and performance is useful primarily because it allows those studying a
language to differentiate between a speech error and not knowing something about the language.
To understand this distinction, it is helpful to think about a time when you've made some sort of
error in your speech. For example, let's say you are a native speaker of English and utter the

We swimmed in the ocean this weekend.

Is this error due to competence or performance? It is most likely that as a native speaker you are
aware how to conjugate irregular verbs in the past, but your performance has let you down this
time. Linguists use the distinction between competence and performance to illustrate the intuitive
difference between accidentally saying swimmed and the fact that a child or non-proficient speaker
of English may not know that the past tense of swim is swam and say swimmed consistently.

As we have learned, competence and performance involve “knowing” and “doing”. In the recent
past, many language instruction programs have focused more on the “knowing” (competence) part
of learning a language wherein words and sentences are presented and practiced in a way to best
help learners internalize the forms. The assumption here is that once the learners have ‘learned’ the
information they will be able to use it through reading, writing, listening and speaking. The
disadvantage of this approach is that the learners are unable to use the language in a natural
way. Having been trained to learn the language through “knowing”, learners have difficulty
reversing this training and actually “doing” something with the language. In brief, it is difficult to
assess whether the learners’ insufficient proficiency is due to limitations of competency or a lack of
Chomsky’s linguistics, however, is not the only kind. In sociolinguistics, the focus is – as the name
suggests – very much upon the relation between language and society. Sociolinguistics endeavours
to find systematic relationships between social groupings and contexts, and the variable ways in
which languages are used. In functional linguistics the concern is with language a means of
communication, the purposes it fulfills, and how people actually use their language. In recent years a
particularly important development in the investigation of language use has been corpus linguistics.
In this approach, vast databanks containing millions of words of actual language in use can be
searched within second to yield extensive information about the word frequencies and
combinations which is not revealed by intuition. These approaches to linguistic study seem much
closer to the reality of experience than Chomsky’s and therefore more relevant to the concerns of
applied linguistics. Yet they, too, in their different ways and for their purposes, abstract and idealize,
detaching language from the experience of its use. Their purpose moreover is to describe and
explain and not, as in applied linguistics, to engage with decision making. What is needed in all cases
- and perhaps particularly in those approaches where the relevance of linguistics seems self-evident
– is constant mediation between two discourses or orders of reality: that of everyday life and
language experience, and that represented by abstract analyses of linguistic expertise. The two are
very different and difficult to reconcile, but the attempt to make each relevant to the other is the
main challenge for applied linguistics and the justification for its existence.

COOK, G. Applied linguistics. Oxford: OUP. 2003, 144.