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3C: Competence Vs Performance

The linguist Noam Chomsky proposed that there exist two aspects of language ability: competence and performance. As you make output mistakes, you will need to correctly identify whether the mistake was an error in competence or performance in order to choose the appropriate exercise to fix it.

Please note: our goal is not to teach linguistics, but to provide a framework for language learning. Our usage of these terms may differ from the strict linguistic definitions. To learn more about the original linguistic concepts, please see the relevant Wikipedia articles: Competence, Performance.


As you acquire a language, your brain creates an unconscious model of how that language works. Competence refers to this unconscious model. It encompasses all aspects of language, including vocabulary usage and idioms, grammar, and pronunciation.

Consciously, you access your competence in the form of intuition. It’s that sense you have of what’s correct and what’s not.

In Stage 3B, we explained how language goes from acquired to activated. Through that process, you identify what language you have not yet acquired or is not yet available for use. These gaps in acquisition or availability are competence issues.


Having the necessary competence for a piece of language doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to use it successfully while speaking. If you recall from the Stage 3 Overview, speaking is a combination of four different skills:

  1. Comprehending the person you're conversing with.
  2. Quickly converting your thoughts into words.
  3. Physically moving your mouth to pronounce the language.
  4. Embodying natural mannerisms and styles of expression.

When speaking, you need to split your attention to address all four sub-skills simultaneously, under time pressure, and without the ability to edit. This makes it virtually impossible for your speaking ability to fully live up to the extent of your competence.

Performance refers to your ability to convert your competence into correct and coherent output. Your performance is directly limited by your competence. You can’t speak naturally if you’re guessing about what sounds right or wrong.

However, competence doesn't directly translate into performance. You may be able to express yourself perfectly when writing, but that doesn’t guarantee you will be able to speak easily. If you struggle with any of the four sub-skills, you will stumble over your words.

The better your competence, the more potential you have for high performance. However, even native speakers struggle with performance, which manifests as stuttering, slips of the tongue, or freezing under pressure.

Performance is improved through output practice. Your goal in Stage 3C is to narrow the gap between your competence and your performance by practicing output.

Performance is not binary; it’s a spectrum. There are many correct ways to convey any given idea that differ in degree of elegance, conciseness, and exactness. Once you’ve achieved a base level of output ability, you can start to tackle these higher-level performance goals. We will discuss this more in Stage 4.

Identifying Mistakes

Using the distinction between competence and performance, we can divide output mistakes into two categories:

  1. Competence-based mistakes
  2. Performance-based mistakes

Different types of mistakes require different practice activities to fix.

Competence Mistakes

Competence-based mistakes occur when you have not yet acquired the relevant language. For example, you may mispronounce a word because you acquired it from reading and have not yet heard it enough while listening.

You're usually not aware when you make a competence mistake. As we discussed in Stage 3B: Output Troubleshooting, you need correction from a native to become aware of these mistakes and address them. In the same article, we explained that awareness pushes your brain to look for the correction in your immersion. Usually, awareness and input are all you need to fix a competence mistake.

It’s also possible to compensate for these gaps by using a conscious monitor to check yourself every time you output. That said, monitoring is only a temporary solution until the competence gap has been filled through input.

Performance Mistakes

Performance mistakes are much easier to identify. You already have the competence and you know the right thing to say, you just slipped up.

Some of these mistakes will jump out the moment you make them, but others will go unnoticed. When you are focused on a conversation, you don’t have much mental bandwidth to observe your own speech. This is why we recommend recording your conversations so that you can listen back to them.

Because you’ve already developed your competence, the majority of your mistakes will be performance-based. It should be easy to identify these mistakes when listening back to recordings of yourself speaking. Once identified, you can fix the mistake through targeted output practice.

How to Identify and Fix Mistakes

When writing, you have the time and opportunity to retroactively edit what you say. This makes the process of identifying and fixing mistakes very straightforward.

Speaking, on the other hand, presents the additional challenges of pronunciation and working under time pressure. This introduces new competence and performance mistakes that don’t occur when writing.

In the rest of Stage 3C, we will describe all the various problems you may encounter while speaking and how to address them.


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