Chomsky & Linguistic Competence.

The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face. ”  — a wise man.

Chomsky revolutionized the study of language and the science and philosophy of linguistics with a series of insights. His major insight was that language theorists must not ignore the internal mental states of agents when trying to account for their “linguistic behaviour”. Contrary to what Behaviorists claimed, language use is much too complex to be described in terms of environmental stimuli and responses. He argued that the language must be described by formulating the grammar for it and assuming that speakers already know this grammar. This internalized information about language, this form of grammar —  What is this knowledge like ?

Much of this is unconscious. So the normal notions of truth and justification for knowledge do not apply here. If somebody conjugates a verb incorrectly, it is not the same kind of mistake as a falsehood. Chomsky used some terminology to deal with these issues. Humans have “linguistic competence” — they internalize a body of rules and this competence translates into behavioral performance. There are a lot of other causal factors which influence linguistic performance apart from competence — attention, memory, physical condition, desires and beliefs etc. What this means is that it is not straightforward to go from observed behavior to the nature of grammar known to the speaker. It can be inferred but there are other factors. Linguistic competence is just one of these factors.

There are some objections to Chomsky’s idea. What Chomsky wants is a notion that will help explain people’s observable speech. What he proposes is a sort of “conscious justified true belief”, but not exactly the same thing. Notions of truth and justification apply awkwardly. If we do not have linguistic competence, we would be hard-pressed to explain linguistic behaviour. Critics point out the differences between two types of knowledge : Knowledge-that & Knowledge-how. Knowledge-that can be termed as propositional knowledge, a matter of believing certain truths on the basis of a learning process. Knowledge-how is a matter of having certain abilities — a skill, like swimming. Some philosophers contend that Chomsky has conflated the two different senses of knowledge and chosen the wrong one in describing knowledge of language. Their justification is that knowledge of language is a very unconscious thing. We are not aware of the complex rules of grammar and find them awkward even when they are pointed out to us. Thus we cannot claim that it is a knowledge-that, but is merely a skill, an unconscious knowledge-how about language.

Chomsky’s defence is that whenever a behaviour can be treated as a result of a simple disposition (like a reflex), a knowledge-that need not be invoked. But when such techniques fail, we need to revert to knowledge-that as an explanatory tool. Linguistic behaviour is as creative, flexible and complex as any other behavior and it cannot be adequately explained as an ability. Why then is a speaker not able to state the rules of language, why are they unconscious ? We do not know. But ever since Freud, scientists have resorted to explaining complex and stimulus-independent actions in terms of mental states even when the agent does not recognize that it is in that state. Language use is similarly stimulus-independent and it makes sense to use the same methods here. Also, people can lose all linguistic abilities without losing linguistic competence. (Comatose people can regain speech after attaining consciousness) So knowledge of language cannot just be a cluster of abilities or skills (which would have disappeared after trauma).  Someone might object saying that one might have the “capacity” but might not be able to use it. Also, to the claim that knowledge-how can only apply to simple behaviors, it might be said that capacities can be as complex as possible. Such a use of “capacity” is legitimate. But it is a mere semantic issue now– it is essentially the same thing as “competence”. Such an objection is a concession.

The debate has not yet been settled. But if we assume that such a thing like “linguistic competence” exists, what does it consist of ? Syntax (rules for constructing sentences), Phonology (rules of pronunciation) and Semantics (information about what parts and their unions mean) are the basic ingredients of this competence. The grammar is also infinitely productive (you can keep producing newer sentences forever).

The next question is answering how we acquire this competence. That shall be the topic of the next post.

A linguistic-philosophical deep thought to end this post  —

Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. MANKIND. Basically, it’s made up of two separate words — “mank” and “ind”. What do these words mean ? It is a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind. ” — Jack Handey


3 thoughts on “Chomsky & Linguistic Competence.

  1. Pingback: why I do not believe in the existence of atheists « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

  2. Pingback: mindful language, propaganda, lying, redistribution, conscious competence, and neuro-physiology « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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