Linguistic Competence and Literary Competence

If we were to consider that literature can only be appreciated only if one understood it, then linguistic competence becomes a prerequisite for literary competence.  The student’s ability to infer is greatly influenced by his or her proficiency in the language.  Language is the premier medium in literature and if one lacked the proficiency in the former, then the latter might appear almost inaccessible to the reader.

There are many reasons as to why linguistic competence becomes significant in gaining literary competence.  The most obvious one is the fact that language is a medium of understanding.  Some works of literature require a certain level of proficiency that limits only a number of audiences.  If you have successfully gone passed the cut-off, then there’s a great chance for understanding and appreciation for a piece of a literary work.  As anyone would notice while reading, there may be ambiguities in most literary works as far as the use of language is concerned.  But there’s a certain level of understanding, a foundation that’s comprehensive and which readers can initially latch upon, that can surprisingly transform such surrounding ambiguities into something mysterious and satisfying.

The same is true when it comes to student-writers.  On a literal level, your ability to write with a clear intent will shape up the understanding of your readers. If you are proficient in the language chosen, then there’s a great possibility that you can transform your writing style into something enchanting, delicate and sublime.  For creative writing practitioners, your talent in handling language correctly can give you the chance to produce a literary work that can inter-animate with the readers. Such dynamic and personal relationship between the reader and the text is the key success of some of the popular literary works that we look up today.

The second reason is more focused on the ability of the reader to understand that language is a translation of one’s own interpretation of the world.  Both readers and writers should know that there are different flavors in language, both written and spoken.  There’s a major difference between the words “soft” and “tender” as far as parole is concerned although these two words are synonymous to each other.  When either word is used in a literary work that heavily depends on form, then you know for sure which one is more appropriate in terms of rhyme, rhythm or style.  Even a simple decision of choosing a word from the other can be crucial this way.  It’s important to understand that ideas and experience are worked in language and ultimately through it.

The same is true when it comes to literary translations.  Proficiency in language – both in source and target language – is necessary to limit the loss of meaning that’s inevitable in the translation process.  Eskimos are said to have more or less, a hundred translations for the word “snow”, which means that relatively, there’s a hundred ways of seeing the subject in every sense of the word.  Thus, language becomes reflective to our world; we see objects in a different light and perspective.  In literature, this becomes very significant, to bring something very particular (world) into the universal (World).

The third reason is more technical – language becomes a primary distinction of the “literariness” of a text.  The Russian Formalists and American New Critics have already emphasized the importance of form as a content.  Since the writer’s descriptions of motifs, devices, rhythm, etc. are interspersed with the use of language then it’s clear that language makes it possible to distinguish a literary work from an ordinary reading material, such as newspaper or a magazine.  A typical weather report in a newspaper may say that the current humidity condition is “77% and good” but a writer like Jack Kerouac would say otherwise, “Warm, palmy air — air you can kiss — and palms” or “It was fragrant and soft — the softest air I’d ever known — and dark, and mysterious, and buzzing”.

If you have a high proficiency in the use of language, you can ensure correct grammar but you can also present objects in a very unusual perspective (“defamiliarization”) which is what most literary classics are essentially reputable for.  On the reader’s part, the experience of delight is more likely if he or she appreciate such transcendent quality of a sublime language.  But this is only possible if the minimum required proficiency is present, as not all literary works are accessible to all ages.

And lastly, we should also take into account the word “competence”.  In this context, literary critics have the most influence in recognizing whether a certain piece of literary work is up for what they call “the standards of taste”.  The focus is not just on the subject of the literary material — most often than not, it is how the subject (or the experience) is being presented through the use language that really matters.  Thus language becomes an obvious tool of assessment for literary critics.

That being said, the criticism of a literary work has become a product of a thorough analysis of the language and the writing craft and how the readers respond to the “truths” being relayed by the text.  It is for this reason too that some writers are widely distinguished for their own technique in language — how these writers make fresh the literary experience.  The rapturous style of Vladimir Nabokov, the stream of consciousness technique of James Joyce, the maximalist style of William Faulkner, the energetic and the spontaneous beat prose of Jack Kerouac, the insightful existentialist ideas of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the sparse and halting prose style technique of Ernest Hemingway — to cite a few examples. Such distinctions have already been laid out by the literary critics; most of them stringently advocated that the qualities of language can be scientifically and objectively studied.

Readers, writers and literary critics have their own reasons as to how important would a linguistic competency be in achieving literary competency.  Readers relate best to the literary works that they can understand.  A writer’s psyche can be plumbed through his use of language, and a certain level of proficiency in it is necessary to come up with a worthy literary work.  Literary critics examine what makes a certain literary “work” – and language is a significant aspect to study.   Although other critics would argue that the whole idea of “competence” is likely skewed in a particular direction that satisfies the definer’s belief, conventions will tell us that linguistic competence and literary competence are interrelated to each other.

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