Understanding a child’s language behaviour: Luca’s language performance vs. language competence        

Language acquisition in a bilingual setting in children and metalinguistic awareness in children 

The terms language competence and language performance can be helpful for educators to shed light on the level of proficiency in a child and open up ways of assisting and supporting the child in her current phase of language acquisition (Chomsky, 1980).  

Luca’s language competence  

 This term describes Luca’s abstract knowledge of the language. So how much Luca “knows” about a language. In other words, it refers to mental representations of a language in Luca’s mind or internalised structures of a language which Luca is familiar with. Luca "knows" certain sounds, rules or meanings in a language.  But it does not mean that Luca can actively use this knowledge for language production which is important to take into account when working with Luca in an institutional context.  

Luca’s language performance 

This term describes Luca’s ability to apply the acquired knowledge of a language. Luca is able to actively produce language and transfer the mental representations into actual sounds, grammatically governed words and sentences. She is able to communicate in this language.    

The difference between competence and performance

When observing a child’s language development the educator might notice that the child progresses in terms of language competence, or in other words language knowledge and basic understanding, but has difficulties in language performance or active language usage. This means the child might not be able to express herself in a this particular language yet. It is important to keep in mind here that the state of not being able to produce language or expressing oneself. This in a language can be an extremely frustrating experience for a child and an adult. Especially when the conversational partner is expecting verbal communication in return. This increases social pressure to interact. The inability to produce language or a lack of language performance can result in certain behaviour at times. As an educator, try and pay attention to the child’s reactions and behaviour when exposed to a certain language (what is the child’s attitude? What kind of emotions does she show? Can you observe externalizing reactions like aggressions and frustration or internalizing reactions like shame or insecurity in her behaviour when exposed to a language?) Try to support and comfort her in these situations to ease stress and lower the pressure to speak. ?) (Cummins, 2001)