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Language Competence

...brought to you by Leon of Leon's Planet
2000 ~ present


Fig. above is from: Bachman, 1990, in Brown, 1994:229

While I (Leon) do not particularly like the way Bachman divides language competence, his diagram (above) shows that language has many other facets besides grammar, and for that reason, I show it is worth showing to you.

Lessons by Leon about : Language Competence



Language Competence Part 1

Organizational Competence
(ability to arrange morphemes, words, and sentences to make sense)

Grammatical Competence
     (ability to organize language on the sentence level)

1.  Vocabulary:  all the words and 'lexical items' of a language AND THEIR MEANINGS.  A lexical item could be one word, or it could be several words that combine to have one collective meaning.  For example:  'put up with' is a 'lexical item' composed of three words, BUT it has one meaning:  'endure'.

2.  Morphology:  the study of the structure of WORDs of a language via the study the morphemes of a language AND how the morphemes come together to form words.  [Morph means shape or structure in Greek].

3.  Syntax: the proper order of words in a sentence. [Syn means together, Tax means order, in Greek].

4.  Phonology:  the study of the sounds of a language.  [Phono means sound in Greek].

Textual Competence
     (ability to organize language on the composition level)

1.  Cohesion:  sentences cohere (stick together) in logical order.

2.  Rhetoric:  the science of persuasive speaking.  [I think Socrates is the "father" of rhetoric].



Pragmatic Competence
(ability to use language in socially appropriate ways)

Illocutionary Competence

- Illocutionary Act:  a speech act where the actual words imply a different meaning from the stated one.  That's why it is is called "illocution" [ill (wrong) + locution (speech)].

- Illocutionary Force:  the intended meaning (which is different from the stated one).

I believe that these terms were coined by Austin & Searle.
Examples of Illocutionary Competence (or incompetence)

1.  Ideational function:  the function of language to express one's ideas

2.  Manipulative function:  the function of language to get someone to do what you would like him/her to do.

3.  Heuristic function:  the function of language to solve problems, esp. by trial-and-error method.  (not the science/art of questioning).
see: http://www.noteaccess.com/MODES/Heuristic.htm

4.  Imaginative function:  the function of language to express imaginary ideas.

Sociolinguistic Competence
     (regionally/socially/culturally accepted language ability)

1.  Dialect:  regional OR social differences in language.  (For example, the 'Ebonic' dialect in the USA is social and not regional). 

2.  Register:  considering one's audience AND social context

3.  Naturalness:  staying in the bounds of what is "common" usage of the language.

4.  Cultural Aspects:  adhering to cultural expectations when using the language, including figures of speech, honorifics (if existing), proper time and place, etc.


Language Competence Part 2


Organizational Competence Extrapolated

I.  Grammatical Competence

    A.  Vocabulary  (you know what that is!)

    B.  Morphology (study of structure via the study of morphemes and how they come together to form words)

             1.  For Example:  The word "organizational" has four morphemes...

                     a.  organ = instrument

                     b.  ize = make or do

                     c.  tion = process

                     d.  al = like (adj. suffix)


For more information on morphemes,
see my

Morpheme Page


    C.  Syntax (a complicated system of rules regarding word order in a sentence)

                1.  simply, and generally, English is a SVO language (Subject Verb Object); but it's not so simple.  Sometimes we break the rules, and it is okay to break the rules sometimes.  AND there are a lot more components to a language than subjects verbs and objects.  For instance, adverbs.  Probably one of the most complex part of English syntax is the placement of adverbs.


For more information on syntax,
see my

Syntax Page


    D.  Phonology (study of intonation, i.e., supra-segmental features of a language).  Whole books have been written on this subject and haven't even dented the surface.  This is such a vast field.

                1.  Supra-segmental features

                a.  paralinguistic features
                            1. whispery voice
                            2. husky voice
                            3. creaky voice
                            4. falsetto voice
                            5. resonant voice
                            6. giggly voice
                            7. sobbing voice

                          b.  prosodic features
                                   1. pitch
                                   2. pitch movement
                                   3. loudness
                                   4. length

                        c.  other terms
                                   1.  tone... falling tone and rising tone
                                   2.  key = relative pitch (is the pitch higher or lower than surrounding pitches)


For more information about phonology,
see my

Phonology Page



II.  Textual Competence

    A.  Cohesion (the logical and semantic connectedness of a linguistic composition)

            1.  I was taught by my speech and debate teacher in high school the following model of excellent cohesion:

                    a.  tell your audience what you are going to tell them (main topics)
                    b.  then, tell them (in logical order, with support for each topic)
                    c.  then, tell them what you just told them (summarize)

            2.  That is the Western mind on cohesiveness.


For more information on cohesiveness,
see my

Writing Page


    B.  Rhetorical organization (the ability to use language for the purpose of persuading one's audience)

            1.  Example:  Socratic method (look it up, ^^ )



Pragmatic Competence Extrapolated

I.  Illocutionary Competence: definition

    A.  Ideational functions

           1.  Ideation is the process of forming (making) ideas

           2.  Language can be used to help make and express ideas

                    a.  Example & Meaning #1

Example of Illocutionary Act to express an idea Meaning
A:  Time's up.
B:  Aw!  Come on.  I just started.
A:  There is no more time.
B:  Aw!  That can't be right.  I just started.

                    b.  Example & Meaning #2

Example of Illocutionary Act to express an idea Meaning
A:  Ready.  Set.  Go!
B:  Wait.  I'm not ready.
A:  Get ready.  Get set.  Begin.
B:  Wait.  I'm not ready.

    B.  Manipulative functions

            1.  Language can be used to manipulate others; i.e. get others to do what we would like.

                    a.  Example #1:

Example of Illocutionary Force with Manipulative Functions. Meaning
A:  It's hot in here.
B:  Okay.  I'll turn on the air conditioner.
A:  It's hot in here; so please do something about it.
B:  Okay.  I'll turn on the air conditioner.

                   b.  Example #2:

Example of Illocutionary Force with Manipulative Functions. Meaning
A:  Were you born in a barn?
B:  Okay.  I'll close the door.
A:  You left the door open.
B:  Okay.  I'll close the door.


    C.  Heuristic functions

            1.  Language can be used to solve problems

                    a.  Example (Teachers use Illocution to help students solve problems)

                            Illocutionary Acts between person A (student) and person B (teacher)

Example Meaning
A:  Teacher, I'm cold.
B:  Well, do you have a coat?
A:  Yes.
B:  Well, why do people have coats?
A:  May I go get my coat?
B:  Yes.
A:  Teacher, I'm cold.  What should I do?
B:  Well, do you have a coat?
A:  Yes.
B:  Aren't coats to keep people warm?
A:  Yes.  May I go get my coat?
B:  Yes.

    D.  Imaginative functions

            1.  Language can be used to imagine (out loud) and express one's imaginations

                    a.  Example

                            Dialogue between Timone (T), Pumba (P), and Simba (S) in "The Lion King"

Example of language used for imaginative functions Expanation
T:  What do you think the stars are made of?
P:  I always thought they were burning balls of gas.
T:  Pumba, to you, everything is gas.
P:  What do you think Simba?
S:  I heard that they are the great kings of the past looking down upon us from the sky.
T:  Puhaha!  What mook told you that?!!!
P:  What do you think, Timone?
T:  They are fireflies that got stuck up in that big bluish black thing.
Language can be used to express ideas that come from the imagination.  There is no proof.  There is just imagination.


II.  Sociolinguistic Competence

    A.  Sensitivity to Dialect or Variety

            1.  Example:  Contrast British English with American English


    B.  Sensitivity to Register

            1.  "Register" has many meanings.  In SOCIOLINGUISTICS, it means:  language used according various social settings (situtations).

                    a.  Example (from An Introduction To Discourse Analysis by Malcolm Coulthard, 1985)

Degrees of Politeness (from least polite to most polite)

Answer the phone
I want you to answer the phone
Will you answer the phone?
Can you answer the phone?
Would you mind answering the phone?
Could you possibly answer the phone?

                    b.  Extrapolation on Coulthard's example

Register Example
to familiar inferior person Answer the phone.
to somewhat less familiar inferior person I want you to answer the phone.
to familiar equal person Will you answer the phone?
to somewhat less familiar equal person Can you answer the phone?
to familiar superior, or unfamiliar equal person Would you mind answering the phone?
to unfamiliar superior person Could you possibly answer the phone?

    C.  Sensitivity to Naturalness

            1.  Sometimes NNS (Non-Native Speakers) use 'proper' grammar, but it doesn't sound natural, i.e., it doesn't sound natural like a NS (Native Speaker) would use language.

                    a.  NNS:  It is another my essay.

                    b.  NS:  It is another essay of mine.

                    c.  NNS:  I sleep now.

                    d.  NS:  I will go to sleep now.

    D.  Cultural References and Figures of Speech











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