* Knowledge and Competence


I’d like to examine the question: “Does L2 competence refer to linguistic knowledge?” from an SLA research perspective.

In at least the cognitive camp of SLA research, the argument goes that in order to explain what L2 knowledge is instantiated in the mind, we need a property theory, while to explain how L2 competence is acquired, on the other hand, we need a transition theory which explains how the mind changes from a state of not knowing X to a state of knowing X (where X can be any part of what is necessary for L2 competence). Thus, a satisfactory theory of SLA must describe the knowledge involved in the various competencies finally attained by learners (a property theory), and also explain how learners acquire them (a transition theory).

Gregg (2003) insists that any attempt to construct a theory of SLA must include a theory of what is being acquired. According to Gregg, relying on surface structures (e.g., the morpheme studies), or on performance data (e.g., the variability theories of Tarone and Ellis), or simply ignoring the issue (e.g., Krashen’s account), will not do. Gregg thinks that UG is the best candidate for a property theory.

Gregg (2003), following Chomsky, argues that exposure to language does not explain what learners know about it. “If children were empiricist learners they could not reliably arrive at the correct grammar for their language. Children do reliably arrive at the correct grammar for their language. Therefore children are not empiricist learners. And Mutatis Mutandis for adult L2 learners: If adults were empiricist learners, they would not reliably arrive at certain kinds of L2 knowledge; adults do (often, sometimes) arrive at such knowledge; therefore, adult L2 learners are not empiricist learners” (Gregg, 2003: 48). This is the famous “poverty of the stimulus” or “logical” argument, applied to SLA.


In answer to this, Carroll (2001) argues that the poverty of the stimulus argument does not apply to SLA. Carrroll develops a theory of SLA around an adaptation of Jackendoff’s Representational Modularity theory (cited in Carroll, 2001: 50) and the Induction Theory of Holland et al (cited in Carroll, 2001: 130). In the follow extract from Carroll, the term “i-learning” appears. In order to distinguish between induction as defined by Holland et al and induction as defined by her own Autonomous Induction Theory, Carroll refers to the latter construct as i-learning.

In a section entitled “There is no logical problem of second language acquisition” Carroll begins by accepting that “UG is necessary to explain how a learner comes to have a representational system capable of encoding phonological and morphosyntactic information.” (Carroll, 2001: 208) and then explains why this does not imply that there is the same logical problem (poverty of the stimulus) for SLA.

“Induction-learning (i-learning) a given language requires some initial representational system(s) in which the various acoustic/phonetic, phonological, morphosyntactic and semantic properties of language are encoded. In the case of primary language acquisition this set … includes at least those representational primitives made available by UG, a priori acoustic and visual perceptual representation systems… and the initial conceptual system. In the case of second language acquisition, the relevant set consists of every representational system the learner has in place at the point in time where L2 acquisition occurs, including a mature and rich culture-specific conceptual system, the specific grammar of the L1, the specific parsing and production systems associated with the L1, a mature acoustic perceptual system, a mature visual perception system, a mature set of domain-specific problem-solving systems, and so on. All the evidence available provides support for the assumption that adults come to the acquisition task capable of deploying their mature representational systems to the purpose of acquiring the L2. ……..

It is true that a theory of SLA must explain properties of the initial state, but one is free to hypothesise that adults are transferring knowledge which has been arrived at in any number of ways. It could be a priori knowledge, acquired through selective learning or canalisation, or it could be l-learned. Consequently one cannot argue that “access” to UG is logically necessary in SLA in order to explain the fact that adults are capable of representing language in terms of linguistic structures. There is no separate logical problem of language acquisition for each particular language that an individual might acquire. Consequently, there is no logical problem of second language acquisition” Carroll, 2001: 209-210).

Carroll ‘s argument shows up the fault in Gregg’s argument: adults, who were once not exclusively empiricist learners, can learn an L2 emprically and still arrive at certain kinds of L2 knowledge – by various types of transfer.

This, I think, rings bells with what the Secret DOS was trying to articulate in the “Bottle of Smoke” post.


The question remains: What is learned / acquired?

Skehan (1995) examines Bachman’s strategic competence and asks if the four constituent operations (assessment, goal-setting, planning, and execution) relate more to competence or to performance, and if consciousness of one’s own strategic competence in operation leads us to performance or to competence issues. How is linguistic competence represented psychologically?

Skehan makes use of Widdowson’s (1989) distinction between analysability (which is concerned with linguistic competence, and therefore parsimonious, systematic, and rule-based), and accessibility (which is concerned with operational requirements: ease of use, and speed of access.) Skehan makes a distinction between analyst’s, user’s and learner’s models: an analyst focuses on the power of abstract rules to generate well-formed sentences, the user’s model focuses on how language is represented accessed and deployed in real time, while learners, who need to develop underlying systems and cope with real-time communication, may experience conflict between the two. While an analyst makes a clear distinction between grammar and lexis, the user does not have to consider the word as the basic unit of organisation; once the formal system is in place, memory can store lexical items in a multiple way in terms of formulaic phrases so as to facilitate a fast retrieval system. The argument is that for the user, accessibility has greater priority, and that he “shifts down” to a more rule-governed mode of processing if and when he hits problems. As to the learner, Skehan argues that he learns a mixture of abstract rules and direct exemplars.

In first language acquisition, the process is in three stages: lexical – syntacticization – relexicalisation, the third stage allowing for multiple codings of lexical items to become available. In post-critical period SLA, however, Skehan suggests a different process is at work: there are 3 stages of information processing: auditory processing (phonemic coding), central processing (inductive language learning), and retrieval (memory). Different learners have different strengths and weaknesses in these three areas. In SLA, development will proceed through cognitive mechanisms (since the LAD is defunct) and learners will have learned some things as a rule-governed system, while other things will have been learned directly as lexical items without the preliminary syntacticization that characterized first language acquisition. The L2 learners’ proneness to fossilization is thus said by Skehan to be the consequence of the lack of a functioning LAD, coupled with a capacity to learn exemplars directly.

Skehan concludes that, from the learner’s perspective, there are demands on attentional resources during communication (cognitive, linguistic, time, pressure, unpredictability), and there are resources a speaker can use (existing competencies, previous experience, time-saving devices, influence on the encounter, planning). If attentional demands are stretched speech will be more pragmatic and lexically organised – accessibility will be the major factor. Thus, in SLA it is misconceived to see competence as underlying performance in any straightforward way: psychological mechanisms are key, formulaic language is not really a competence, and planning helps draw on form. What Skehan is obviously challenging here is the competence/performance dichotomy, and the knowledge/skill dichotomy too. Is strategic competence a component of competence? Awareness of how to cope can be seen as competence, but behaviour during communication is clearly in the realm of performance. The solution, Skehan argues, is to see strategic competence as the operation of processes which constitute “ability for use”.

Ability for use, in other words, is what goes beyond Bachman’s (1990) assessment, goal-setting, planning, and execution and is what accounts for the balance between analysability and accessibility as the processing dimension of actual communication. (Skehan, 1995: 106)

This brief summary of Skehan’s 1995 paper is intended to show that there are many in the field of SLA who reject the argument that competence in L2 is best described by the type of “knowledge” Chomsky tries to describe in UG. Constructs such as Skehan’s “ability for use” reflect the growing opinion that Chomskian “competence” is not the best bedrock for a framework for examining SLA. A description of what constitutes competence in an L2 is very different to a description of the modular knowledge that Chomsky gives for L1 acquisition.

The need to answer the question “What is acquired in SLA?” is not synonymous with the need for a property theory of linguistic competence, unless of course the definition makes it so. Skehan’s “ability for use” construct is one alternative, and connectionist models offer at least the possibility of describing the acquired knowledge very differently.


Another option is to address the question of language proficiency as Bialystok (2001) does. What is the norm for language competence? What do we mean by language proficiency? What are its components and what is the range of acceptable variation? Although these questions may seem to be prior to any use of language as a research instrument or conclusion about language ability in individuals, they rarely if ever are explicitly addressed. (Bialystok, 2001: 11)

Bialystok does not underestimate the difficulties of measuring language proficiency, and she does no more than “point to approaches that may eventually provide a fruitful resolution”, but her book demonstrates the feasibility of such an objective, and underlines the need to resolve the arguments among those that adopt formal and functional approaches to linguistic theory. “We need to establish fixed criteria that supersede the theoretical squabbles and point to critical landmarks in language mastery. These are lofty goals, but without some framework for evaluating progress it is impossible to produce meaningful descriptions of the acquisition of language” (Bialystok, 2001: 14).

Bachman’s description of language competence, while designed to measure language use, indicates the kinds of competencies that are involved in developing IL systems, and Bialystok has indicated how the search for proficiency measurements might continue. It should not be beyond the powers of researchers interested in different parts of the system to describe them so as to allow for the principled interpretation of empirical data.

Meanwhile, I hope that this quick review will serve The Secret DOS, who is right to challenge what SLA researchers are doing and the assumptions they start from. The dichotomies of impicit versus explicit learning; the confusion in the use of the constructs “competence” and “knowledge”, “use” and “usage”, “competence” and “performance”; the general consensus that L2 learners develop an interlanguage grammar; and even the term “second language learning” itself, need careful re-examination.

Bialystok, E. 2001: Bilingualism in Development. Cambridge: CUP.

Carroll, S.E. (2001) Input and Evidence. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Gregg, K. R. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 2, 42-75.

The Secret DOS (http://thesecretdos.wordpress.com/)

Skehan, P. (1995) Analysability, accessibility, and ability for use. In Cook, G. and Seidlhoffer. B. (eds.): Principles and Practice in Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Widdowson, H. (1989) Knowledge of language and ability for use. Applied Linguistics 10,2, 128-137.

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