In his Course of General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure introduced terms that explain the different ways in which we communicate.
Among the terms he introduced, he included “langue” and “parole.” First, let us establish that these two terms comprise some of the basic elements of communication. They are types of “building blocks” within language. As such, let us define language.
Language itself is a faculty of speech; an ability to speak is part of what makes humans unique. We all possess the ability inherently.
Now, within language, there is langue, or the system and capacity of communication that we all possess.
Parole is the actual action that we engage in when we speak. It is, essentially, speaking. Another way of saying it: langue is the universal system, while parole is the pivotal agent that contributes to the expansion of the system.
Let us expand a bit more:
Langue is a composite of all the traits of a language; think of it as a big container that hosts all the parts of language as we use it, particularly, the images and words that come to mind and the sound-to-symbol connection that occurs when we speak. All of those stored images, words, meanings, and sub-meanings comprise “langue.”
Parole is speaking. "Palabra," its meaning in Spanish, shares a similar meaning: the act of activating langue through the use of speech. Parole is the enabler of the langue. Langue embraces parole.
If you ever get confused with Saussure’s use of the terms “langue” and “parole,” just check out Noam Chomsky’s version of it.
He applies langue et parole to the field of pedagogy and education, particularly in the area of second languages. He also uses it to study individuals who have the ability to engage in other languages.
The equivalent of “langue,” in Chomsky’s point of view, is what he calls “competence”; this is the ability, capacity, and potential that is there to be tapped. For “parole,” which remains an action word in Chomsky’s version, he uses the name “performance.”
In total, the langue (Chomsky’s “competence”) is the sum of all the combined aspects of a language system, while the parole (Chomsky’s “performance”) is the actual exercise of language through speaking.
Check out eNote’s super awesome analysis of Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics and take a look at the eNote’s study guides on Chomsky’s most salient works in linguistics for more information.