Competence v performance

Linguists distinguish between linguistic competence — what we know, consciously or unconsciously, about a language (our first or a second) — and linguistic performance — how effectively we put that knowledge into producing or comprehending speech, which is influenced by all sorts of factors about the speaker, the listener(s) and the context.

Last night, I had to do some photocopying for this morning’s lessons. I went to a PC-bang (computer café). The employee guided me to a computer, and I set about opening and printing files. (As it turns out, there was a technical problem, which is not relevant to the story.) I didn’t have to say anything at this point, but managed to blurt “내일 대학교 사무실 있어요. 오늘 없어요” (“Tomorrow university office have. Today not have.”) As the employer fixed the technical problem, I though “Hey, I can do better than that” and by the time I left had come up with “내일부터 대학교에서 사무실을 있을거옝요. 오늘 없어요” (“Tomorrow-from university-at office-(object) going-to-have. Today not have” (the omission of “I” is acceptable in Korean, and there is no “do-support” for negative statements). This may not be perfect Korean, but it’s a darn sight better than what I actually produced. But by the time I left, it was too late to say it again.

I always have to keep this phenomenon at the forefront of my mind in class. Students may be lacking in performance rather than in knowledge. It is important to allow them enough time to formulate their thoughts (but allowing too much time too often can make the lesson grind to a halt). It is also important to include the four macro-skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening), as students are often better at one or some and worse at one or others. My Korean writing is my best skill. I have sent various text messages to various of my wife’s family and friends. Some of them have replied in full-on Korean. Indeed, a few days ago one of my sisters-in-law sent a long text message in full-on Korean. I replied that my wife was using another mobile phone and gave the number. The message was, in fact, a birthday greeting to me. Although I couldn’t hope to understand the full message with my current knowledge, I could, upon re-reading, pick out ‘birthday’, ‘congratulations’ etc (but she didn’t use the standard greeting for birthdays — I can and would have recognised that, even at 6.19 am).

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