a {text-decoration: none; } En la punta de la lengua: Do you really 'know' a language?

1 sept 2015

Do you really 'know' a language?

To ‘know a language’ is a more complicated notion that most people would think. Some scholars such as Cummins (2006) have suggested that language proficiency can be measured in three different aspects: conversational fluency (holding a conversation without linguistic gaps or speech boulders), discrete language skills (speaking, writing, reading, and listening), and academic language (being able to communicate, formulate and understand ideas within academic contexts that comprehend all subjects taught at school). However, this view has been criticized, due to the fact that it oversimplifies the complex notion of language, although is still used in standardized tests.

Another point of view is the one proposed by Chomsky (1965), who introduced the       concepts of linguistic competence and performance as two fundamental skills that truly proficient/native speakers of a language have. The first one describes the mental knowledge that a speaker or listener has of a language (similar to interlanguage when talking about SLA); whereas the second one is used to describe the individual’s production, as well of general comprehension of a language.
Later on, Hymes (1972) coined the term of communicative competence to conceptualize a perhaps idealistic vision of a proficient speaker of a language regardless of the point of acquisition.
·       Possibility (Grammatical competence):  the ability the theoretical bases of language in order to code and decode meaningful code and sentences. In other words, the ability to know what is possible and what is not in a specific language
·        Feasibility (Discourse competence): the ability to connect diverse sentences and therefore ideas in order to understand the general meaning of a whole, and limit the linguistic material that can be processed by the mind. 
·       Appropriateness (Sociolinguistic competence): the ability to understand the basis of the social situation where a speech act or discourse is taking place, as wells as the participants and other pragmatic values.
·       Attestedness (Strategic competence): the ability to formulate immediate strategies when communication seems to be falling down, because of the lack of information to know if something is said or done in a language.
             Another important part of language is how we use it for social interaction on our daily basis, and the many factors that determine the nature of an utterance on a social scenario. Thus, concepts such as register (high vs. low or formal vs. informal), lexical repertoires (the vocabulary to address different topics and engage in different speech acts) genres (the linguistic elements that allow us to know if someone is narrating, persuading, arguing, joking, lecturing, complaining, asking etc. in both, written and spoken discourses) functions of language (referential, expressive, conative, poetic, phatic and metalinguistic) and other features such as gender, culture, paralanguage, kinesics, etc. are also relevant to measure language proficiency.  


Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: M.I.T., 1965. Print.

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