Functional Basis of Language

Language can have a wide range of functions. If you think about all the different kinds of social interactions you have on a day-to-day basis, you'll probably be able to pick out a few of these different functions. Some examples include:

Functional Basis of Language Functional Basis of Language

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    • using language to organise events, people, or activities.
    • using language to get people to do things for us or to ask for favours.
    • using language to express our needs and ensure they're met.
    • using language to build and strengthen social relationships.
    • using language to find out new information and ask questions.

    Functional Basis of Language confused woman StudySmarterFig 1. We can use language to ask questions.

    This is a mere sample of all the different things we can use language for, and this is where the study of functional linguistics comes in.

    Functional theory and functional linguistics

    Sounds fancy, but what does functional linguistics mean and how does it relate to the functional theory of the English language?

    Functional linguistics refers to an approach to the study of language that views language as a part of social semiotics (anything that uses words, signs, or symbols to communicate something). This basically means that functional linguistics is concerned with language as a tool for social interactions and as a way to support social functions.

    Another term used to describe functional linguistics is the 'functional basis of language', so you'll see both of these terms in this article.

    Without any further ado, let's get stuck in and learn some more about the functional basis of language!

    The functional basis of language from structure to functions

    At the very foundation of functional linguistics, there is the belief that language is inseparable from social functions. This means that, from the ground up, language is used to get things done in social situations.

    Language acquisition and functional linguistics

    The functional theory (or approach) begins right from language acquisition. There are several key schools of thought when it comes to language acquisition, and you might be familiar with these through your study of other language topics. The key approaches alongside functionalist theory include:

    • The Nativist Approach: language learning is innate and children are born with a basic understanding of language.

    • The Cognitive Approach: language learning correlates with cognitive development.

    • The Behavioural Approach: language learning is strongly linked with our environment and conditioning.

    • The Interactionist Approach: language learning is dependent on social interaction and the Language Acquisition Support System.

    The concept of the functional basis of language is that language acquisition is based on mastering social functions rather than mastering grammatical structures and specific linguistic features.

    In other words, the belief in functionalist linguistics is that we learn language so that we can execute social functions, such as forming relationships and ensuring our basic needs are met (among other things).

    Based on the functionalist approach, new elements of language such as pragmatic structures, grammar, and vocabulary should all be placed on the same level of importance. This is because each of these linguistic structures helps us to master social functions.

    We keep talking about these 'social functions' but what exactly are they?

    The three basic functions of language

    In the functionalist approach to language, there are a few specific functions that language can be used to carry out. In this section, we'll look at the three main ones:

    • Informative

    • Expressive

    • Directive

    Informative language function

    The informative language function refers to the communication of information. In other words, the goal of informative language is to inform.

    Informative language is used to give more details about events or facts, or to share information with others. For example, informative language is used by teachers in schools to educate students, and by reporters and newscasters on tv to share the news with an audience. We can also use the informative language function on a daily basis to tell people where we're going, what we're doing, or about things going on in our lives.

    Functional Basis of Language Basic Functions of Language StudySmarterFig 2. The informative language function refers to the communication of information.

    Expressive language function

    The expressive language function is based on the emotions, feelings, attitudes, ideas, and opinions of the writer or speaker. In other words, expressive language is used to express oneself.

    Expressive language can be positive (such as expressing happiness or excitement) or negative (such as expressing sadness or anger), and can be used to create deeper connections with other people in social situations (sharing your beliefs and opinions is a good way to let people know more about you and therefore become closer to you).

    Directive language function

    The directive language function refers to the use of language for giving orders or making requests. In other words, directive language is used to direct others.

    Directive language can be used to give commands (e.g. “Pick up that piece of litter."), to instruct someone to do something (e.g. "Place your left foot on the clutch and push it all the way in when you want to change gears."), or to make a request (e.g. "Please wash your dishes before you go to bed."). The directive language function is essentially based on getting things done.

    Example of the functional view of language

    The most prominent linguist associated with the functional theory of the English language is Michael Halliday, a British linguist who pioneered the systemic functional linguistics model of language. Let's explore the functions of language as proposed by Halliday.

    Halliday expanded upon the three basic functions of language we looked at earlier (informative, expressive. directive) and came up with a total of seven, commonly referred to as Halliday's functions of language.1

    These are:

    • Instrumental - used to express the needs of the speaker. For example, “I'm getting hungry”.

    • Regulatory - used to tell other people what to do. For example, "Take the dog for a walk".

    • Interactional - used to form social relationships. For example, "Thank you for helping me with my homework".

    • Personal - used to express opinions and feelings. For example, "I can't stand country music."

    • Heuristic - used to ask questions. For example, "Why is the sky blue?"

    • Imaginative - used to express creative language. For example, stories and jokes, "Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side."

    • Representational - used to communicate information. For example, "I ate the food in the fridge".

    Can you think of your own examples for each kind of language function? Try writing down three examples of each of Halliday's seven functions.

    Systemic functional linguistics

    Let's reconsider our definition of functional linguistics from earlier on in this article:

    Functional linguistics refers to an approach to the study of language that views language as a part of social semiotics (anything that uses words, signs, or symbols to communicate something). This basically means that functional linguistics is concerned with language as a tool for aiding social interactions and supporting social functions.

    It is not a big jump to then understanding what Halliday meant by 'systemic functional linguistics'. The basis is the same idea but to elaborate, Halliday said that systemic functional linguistics:

    • opposes the traditional idea that language is a set of rules for specifying grammatical structures, and instead supports the idea that language is a resource for conveying meaning.

    • sees grammar as a tool to facilitate more effective communication of meaning, rather than strict rules that must be learned and followed.

    • focuses on the whole system and purpose of grammar rather than simply its individual fragments (hence the 'systemic' part of 'systemic functional linguistics').

    • looks at clauses rather than sentences as units of analysis. There are three distinct semantic structures that can be combined in a clause to create meaning.1

    These three semantic structures are:

    • the interpersonal meta-function: focusing on the interaction between the speaker and addressee and the speech and social roles instrumental in building and maintaining social relationships.

    • the ideational meta-function: concerned with the grammatical resources we use to construct and express our experience of the world.

    • the textual meta-function: creating text that effectively presents interpersonal and ideational meanings to be shared between speakers and addressees.1

    Functional Basis of Language Systemic Functional Linguistics man about to write letter StudySmarterFig 3. Systematic functional linguistics views grammar as a tool to facilitate communication.

    Structuralism and functionalism in linguistics

    To recap:

    Functionalism is a linguistic approach that explores the functions of language.

    Another term to be aware of in the topic of the functional basis of language is structuralism.

    In linguistics, structuralism is the idea that a language is a self-contained relational structure, and the elements of the language gain value from their use and distribution.

    How does this relate to the functional basis of language?

    The two concepts are not that far apart if you compare them. At its core, the functional approach to linguistics is concerned with how people use language to execute different social functions. The basis of structuralism is that the elements of language are made important due to their use in social interactions.

    When we intertwine the two concepts, we can see that structuralism plays a significant role in functional linguistics. By using different types of language and different language structures (such as different elements of grammar, and different vocabulary words) to carry out the different functions of language, we give these elements importance and value.

    Functional Basis of Language - Key Takeaways

    • The functional basis of language, or functional linguistics, is a theory (or approach) to language study that is concerned with how we use language to execute social functions.
    • Functional linguistics sees language as a part of social semiotics (social semiotics is any system that uses words, signs, or symbols to communicate meaning).
    • There are three basic language functions: the directive function, the expressive function, and the informative function. Each of these can be used to carry out different types of social interaction.
    • Michael Halliday said there are 7 functions of language: instrumental, regulatory, interactional, personal, heuristic, imaginative, and representational. Each of these is used in different situations to achieve different results.
    • Structuralism in linguistics says that language structures gain value from their use and distribution.
    • Structuralism and functionalism are closely linked as when we use different linguistic elements to execute different social functions, we are giving meaning and importance to these elements.

    1. M. Halliday. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. (1985)

    Frequently Asked Questions about Functional Basis of Language

    What are the 7 functions of language?

    The 7 functions of language are instrumental, regulatory, interactional, personal, heuristic, imaginative, representational.

    What is the functional theory of language?

    The functional theory relies on the work of Michael Halliday, which was based on studies he conducted on the language of his infant son. According to Halliday, children grow a “meaning potential” that helps them to learn a new language and its grammar. When you learn a language, you learn how to mean it.

    What are the basic functions of language?

    There are three basic functions of language: informative, expressive, and directive.

    What is meant by functional linguistics?

    Functional linguistics is an approach to the study of language’s characteristics related to the reasons why speakers and hearers communicate.

    What are the 7 functions of language with examples

    The 7 functions of language with examples are:

    • Instrumental - used to express the needs of the speaker. For example, “I'm getting hungry”. 

    • Regulatory - used to tell other people what to do. For example, "Take the dog for a walk".

    • Interactional - used to form social relationships. For example, "Thank you for helping me with my homework". 

    • Personal - used to express opinions and feelings. For example, "I can't stand country music."

    • Heuristic - used to ask questions. For example, "Why is the sky blue?"

    • Imaginative - used to express creative language. For example, stories and jokes, "Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side."

    • Representational - used to communicate information. For example, "I ate the food in the fridge".

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: The instrumental function of language refers to when language is used to fulfil a need. 

    Halliday's seven functions of language are also known as:

    Which of the following are examples of instrumental language?

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