A Redundancy—and Revitalisation—of Competencies:
Competence in Competence
Compo Tenz, Professor in Competence
University of Comptance in Quompuy, Tennessee
When the undergraduate student of linguistics has finally hacked her way through the left-periphery,1 drawn more tree diagrams than there are trees in the Amazon,2 merged move with whatever move merges with, and bared the structure of her fazed soul before bare phrase structure, often all that will be left at the end may be a residual echo of some vague recollection of the flitting memory of the idea of Chomskyan competence; to wit: the ideal speaker-listener in a perfectly homogenous ... (you know the rest). Despite that, what, alas, however, nevertheless, our notional student may not have taken away—due of course to the syntactico-centric ideological biases within linguistics—is the notion that there are many other kinds of ‘competence’ in linguistics that fail to receive as much attention as the Gnome’s. A great many, in fact: even, I venture, a redundancy. This short reflection investigates the applied linguistics analogue of Chomsky’s version of competence (ChomCom) and its many language learning–relevant descendents, before introducing a novel interpretation of competence in the adult
movie industry swimwear section language learning field which, it is hoped, revitalises, refreshes and definitely de-redundancises the concept of competence.
The first usurper of ChomCom was Dell ‘I’m not the American technology giant Dell’ Hathaway ‘not Berkshire Hathaway either’3 Hymes ‘Hymes isn’t homophonous with any American multinational that I’m aware of’. The Tom Snout to Chomsky’s Bottom, Hymes’ fascination for cultural thises and anthropological thats qualified him admirably to come up with a vague and undefined nebulous counterpart of (if not complement to) the overly mathematical rigidity of ChomCom. Nothing short of a back-handed Sicilian Defense to Chomsky’s opening 1.e4, his zinger notion of Communicative Competence (ComCom) took the world of linguistics, as well as the worlds of international banking, commodities trading and men-only Friday night needlework, by storm—or indeed by typhoon. The exposition of ComCom, Hymes’ SPEAKING acronym, left most of the Western world, ironically enough, speechless: never before had anyone dared to suggest that language was sensitive to context and the field owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Hymes for his unprecedented insights.4 A secondary if crucial effect of ComCom,5 as it came to be known, was to inspire the whole field of language studies to take up the search for other kinds of competence.
So, the notion of communicative competence bought houses all over the place. But one place where it became particularly popular was Adult Second Language Learning Avenue, where it had settled down, bought a large waterfront mansion smack bang in the centre of the street, put its feet up in the front room and waited until all the neighbors came knocking. And come knocking they did: every Tom, Dick, Harry, Saul, Jonathan and David, Peter, Paul and Marmaduke6 was screaming through the letterbox: ‘How can I apply ComCom to language teaching?’ It was here in the dark-smelling valley and wither-light treetops of Adult Second Language Learning that new versions of language competence began to spawn themselves into a myriad of quasi–self copies that autopromulgated as much thither and hither and thence and whence.
The reader will be familiar with many of these. Pooflebuxtable’s (1989) GramCom (grammatical competence), Blair-Raccoonio’s (1996) StratCom (strategic competence), Gafoffle & Zingaboodle’s (1999) IntCom (interactional competence) and Hopnscotch’s (2004) CultCom (cultural competence8). Adult Second Language Learning has benefited enormously from these variant formulations with the entire professional community—be they teachers, curriculum designers or assessors—meeting regularly in various local, regional and global fora to intelligently and thoughtfully consider how to enhance language pedagogy on the basis of these various approaches. Differentially stressing various aspects of the language learning process, throughout their emergence in the 1990s and 2000s, the consensus built that their contribution was not only critical, but perhaps best conceived of and operationalised in a mutually supportive, a-little-bit-here-and-a-little-bit-there kind of way. Despite this extreme importance for the field, I will avoid going into these in depth for three reasons: firstly much has been written on them elsewhere;9 secondly, while fascinating, they are unutterably, dully boring; thirdly and finally, I don’t really understand them. This plethora of competencies nevertheless sets the scene for the pièce de résistance of this particular consistently persistent piece: a novel formulation of competence for the Language Learning Industry.
Ladyfolk and gentle-fellas, I am proud to give you, here tonight, via the prestigious platform of SpecGram, a brand-new, razzle-dazzle, up-an’-at-’em conceptuo-formularisation of competence for language learning in the 21st century: I give you ‘competence in ... (wait for it) ... competence’. Yes, this is the heart of the matter. What the many descendants of Hymes’ ComCom, itself a response to Chomsky’s ChomCon, fail to see is the deceptively lurking simplicity of the task of the language learner. It is, of course, simply to be competent in language learning. Or, to put it another way, competent language learners are competent language learners. Ergo, the most important, if not only, notion of ‘in competence’ in relation to language learning is to be competent. If ‘in competence’ can be actualised in the language classrooms of the world, the result will surely be competent language learners.
I submit that this formulation of competence in the field of language learning not only strims away the chatter and cardboard boxxery of previous conceptualisations but also declutters the domain of the over articulation of prior frameworks. Let us not oversimplify, however, for Competence in Competence10 is more than a parsimonious prism through which to examine the intricacies of language learning: it is also a call to further research. I go further, it is a research agenda, that agenda being ‘Of what does competence in competence consist?’ Prima facie, responses may include such domains as communication, grammar, interaction, strategy and the like; but clearly empirical investigation is needed for a complete working of the ‘in competence’ construct.
A final thought: if Competence in Competence has legs11 in the language learning domain, there is every reason to consider whether it can be extended to other fields. Consider the possibilities: perhaps it will transpire that brain surgery (for example) is simply competence in brain surgery competence; or military or political leadership (for instance) will turn out to be but competence in those respective fields. If so, this would mark a breakthrough moment for linguistics, a moment when, finally, a construct which developed within the language sciences, actually has applicability in the linguistics-external world. Not since Plato conjectured that words refer to actual things, has linguistics broken out of its own discipline limitations to strut and fret upon the stage of ‘real life’. Such a meta-competence (MetCon?!?!) might serve to reconfigure the language sciences faster and more furiously than ever before. We hope for this, long for it even; but first let us focus on ‘in competence’: to invite language researchers to think in ‘competence in competence’ and to create ‘in competence’ teachers and perhaps even ‘in competence’ learners.
1 Or hard left–periphery if we’re talking about Russian in the early 20th century.
2 Slightly fewer trees in the Amazon by the time you finish reading this.
3 Or Anne Hathaway, either the Hollywood A-lister or Mrs Shakespeare.
4 He could also cook a mean chocolate brownie. And indeed proposed the acronym COOKING to factor out how to do so: Cook, Oven, Oven 2 (in case first Oven breaks), Kitchen, Ingredients, Nutrition and Get Started!
5 Which is also the etymology for RomCom: the first Romantic Comedy was Hitchcock’s The ComComs of Number 83, a rollocking, rip-roaring twistabout tale of a zany, cock-a-snook family of professional ComCom researchers whose high-jinks and layabout comings-and-goings see them inadvertently drawn into the world of underground violent crime—with hilarious results. So successful was Hitchcock’s series that a whole new genre of family-friendly comedy was born, ‘the RomCom’, quite clearly derived from the abbreviation of the title.
6 But no Johns, Pauls, Georges, or Ringoes.7
7 Or is it ‘Ringos’ as in the chapter from Lord of the Rings, ‘The Ringos South’?
8 Not to be confused with the proven ability to set up and run a cult.
9 Such as subway walls and tenement halls.
10 It’s better with capitals, I think, don’t you? Kinda more stylish. Or just ‘there’, somehow. Yes, I think we’ll stay with the capitals.
11 Clearly, I assume it does; however whether it is bipedal or quadrupedal (or other) remains to be seen. It may of course, counter-intuitively, walk on its hands.