Michael Halliday

Michael Halliday was a British linguist who studied child language acquisitionHalliday suggested that communication and language acquisition begins before children can speak. Studies of his own son's linguistic behaviour led to the publication of Learning How to Mean in 1975. 

Michael Halliday Michael Halliday

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Table of contents

    In Learning How to Mean (1975), Halliday suggested that, as a child learns its first language, it simultaneously learns about the world around them. Halliday viewed language as a cultural code that teaches us how to be part of society, rather than simply a method of communication. Thus, Halliday's functions of language were born.

    Halliday Crowd of people, StudySmarter

    Fig 1. Halliday viewed language as a cultural tool rather than

    just a communication tool.

    Halliday's functions of language

    What are Halliday's functions of language? Michael Halliday, a prominent linguist, proposed a functional approach to language known as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). In 1975, Halliday published his 'seven functions of language', which describes the way children use language, referring to these as 'developmental functions' or 'micro functions'. Halliday's seven functions of language: instrumental, personal, regulatory, interactional, imaginative, representational, and heuristic.

    Halliday's functions of language
    Function of languageDescriptionExamples
    InstrumentalLanguage used to fulfill needs or desires, such as requesting food or comfort."I want," "Can I have," "I need"
    RegulatoryLanguage used to command, persuade, or request someone to do something, controlling their behavior."Let's go home now," "You need to finish that work by tomorrow," "Can you give me the report from yesterday?"
    InteractiveLanguage used to form relationships, express emotions, and strengthen bonds with others."I love you, mom," "Thank you so much"
    PersonalLanguage used to express personal opinions, emotions, and identity, as well as to seek information about the world."Me good," "Me happy," "What's that?"
    HeuristicLanguage associated with discovery and explanation, often through questions and self-narration."The horsey goes over to the dinosaur and says hello," "What's that?"
    RepresentationalLanguage used to request and relay information between people, exchanging facts and experiences."What's that?" "What does that do?" "I was walking down the street and a cat jumped out in front of me."
    ImaginativeLanguage used in storytelling and imaginative play, creating fictional scenarios and characters.Pretending to be in a house, spaceship, or adopting different characters during play.

    Halliday's functions of language examples

    Let's have an in=depth look at Halliday's functions of language, along with examples of each and the situations they may be used in. The following functions describe how children acquire and use language. The first four of Halliday's functions relate to how children's social, emotional, and physical needs are met through language.

    The instrumental function of language

    The instrumental function of language refers to when language is used to fulfil a need, such as requiring food, drink, or comfort.

    For example, the phrases 'I want', 'Can I have', and 'I need' are all examples of instrumental language.

    When a child is thirsty they might say something like 'I want bottle'. If the carer gives them the bottle then their needs have been met through their use of language.

    The regulatory function of language

    When a speaker commands, persuades or requests something from someone else, this is known as a regulatory language function. Regulatory language controls the listener's behaviour (the speaker adopts a commanding tone). Examples include:

    • 'Let's go home now.'
    • 'You need to finish that work by tomorrow so get on with it.'
    • 'Can you give me the report from yesterday?'

    As evident in these examples of Halliday's functions, the listener has restricted agency as the speaker has taken the dominant position in the conversation.


    This example of Halliday's function is how we form relationships with others as it encompasses the communicative use of language. It is how we relay our thoughts and emotions, strengthening bonds with those around us. Interactional language examples include phrases like 'I love you mum' or 'Thank you so much', revealing the emotions and opinions of the speaker.

    Personal functions

    This function defines how we refer to ourselves and express our personal opinions, our identity, and our feelings. A child may communicate their opinions and emotions in a simplistic way, using phrases like 'me good' or 'me happy'.

    As well as expressing personal opinions and emotions, the personal function of language also encompasses how we use language to learn more about our surroundings, by requesting information about it. This is known as the 'personal function of language', as we gain information which benefits ourselves and our understanding of society. Questions like 'what's that?' or 'what does that mean?' are examples of personal language function.

    Next time you interact with a young child or toddler see if you can spot any of these language functions in their speech and communication styles.

    The next three language functions that are part of Halliday's functions of language describe how children adapt to their environment through learning language.


    This term refers to language associated with discovery and explanation, usually in the form of questions or a running commentary (when the child talks about what they are doing as they are doing it). For example, a lot of children talk to themselves when they are younger (some people still do this as adults!) to explain what they are doing, to themselves. This helps them understand their actions in relation to the world around them.

    Children tend to do this when they are playing. They say things like 'The horsey goes over to the dinosaur and says hello, but he doesn't say hello back because he isn't being friendly. The wizard felt bad for the horsey and came and said hello to her. Now they are best friends'.

    Another example of children narrating is persistent questioning. It is not uncommon for children to continuously ask 'What's that?', 'What does that do?', or 'Why?' in response to an adult giving them an instruction. It also occurs when adults are talking about a topic children don't understand.

    Representational / informative

    Similar to heuristic and personal functions, representational language occurs when we request information. However, it differs from 'heuristic' and 'personal' functions as it also refers to when we relay information. In other words, it describes the exchange of information between two or more people.

    For example, questions like 'what's that?' and 'what does that do?' are representational; if this question is answered it leads to an exchange of information.

    Another example of representational language is when people relay information. Imagine someone telling a story, such as, 'I was walking down the street and a cat jumped out in front of me. It really made me jump! 'This is an example of representational language because it relates information about events.


    When children tell stories and create imaginary friends or concepts in their heads, it is an imaginative way of using language. Imaginative language usually occurs in leisure or play scenarios.

    Remember when you were a child playing in the playground? Did you and your friends imagine you were somewhere else, such as in a house or a spaceship? Children do this to make games more interesting.

    Children adopt suitable characters to act out with their friends. For example, if you pretend you are in space you remove yourself from the playground environment and into a fantasy world - much more exciting!

    Halliday Students whispering StudySmarterFig. 2 - Children learn to use the seven functions of language.

    Now we have described Halliday's seven functions of language, let's explore more about his theory and how he believed children learn.

    Halliday's theory of language

    Now we have looked at Halliday's functions of language, how exactly did Halliday believe children learn languages?

    Based on his own child, Halliday argued that children communicate and learn a language before they can speak. There are a few things that Halliday believed impact how a child learns its first language:

    • Halliday suggests social interaction is key for child language learning as it is vital for them to see how language functions in society. That way they can learn how to be members of society themselves.
    • Halliday views language as not only a mode of communication but a cultural code we need to understand to fit in with our surroundings: 'Language is the main channel through which the patterns of living are transmitted to him, through which he learns to act as a member of a society... [and] to adopt its' culture'. This quote reveals Halliday's view that language is the key to learning how to become a member of society rather than just a method of communicating.
    • Rather than the language learning process starting when children start to speak, Halliday argued that as soon as children can cry or make facial expressions language is present. This is because children can communicate their feelings through facial expressions and actions.
    • Children learn to do things to get a reaction, meaning they can communicate their emotions and use language to get what they want before they can talk. Children often throw small objects or start to cry to get a reaction from their caregivers.
    • Halliday believes we are always making choices in our language and communication.

    Halliday's 3 stage theory of child language acquisition

    Halliday came up with three phases describing how children learn a language.

    Phase 1

    This phase occurs when the child is 6-18 months old.

    When the child is in this phase they are in a 'first language' environment. During this period, they learn the seven functions and begin to understand how language connects them to their surroundings.

    It is important to note that child 'language' at this point doesn't always resemble recognisable words, but rather combinations of sounds.

    Phase 2

    Phase 2 happens when the child is 18 - 24 months old. This phase describes the transition from child to adult language.

    Children begin to use more recognisable words but they remain less advanced communicators than adults as they speak in broken sentences.

    For example, they would say 'Where's blankie?' and 'I want mama.' instead of 'Where is my blanket?' and 'I want my mum'.

    This phase refers to what a child can do with language rather than how many words it takes to communicate their point. Halliday believes in this phase a child can get the same results as an adult speaking in full correct sentences without speaking in grammatically correct English.

    In phase 2, the child uses multiple phrases in conjunction rather than just singular expressions. For instance, rather than saying 'Oh I didn't know there was any pasta left, please can I have some?' They would say 'PASTA!' followed by 'me want pasta.' or 'I want some.'

    Phase 3

    A child typically transitions into phase 3 when they are around 2 years old.

    They begin to understand more about the functions of language and they start to stray from their previous communication methods used to get attention, such as crying or throwing things. They realise language can help them learn and find out about things rather than just getting them what they want.

    Halliday's systematic functions in linguistics

    Unlike most linguistic functions, Halliday's theory of systemic functional linguistics is functional and semantic in its orientation, rather than formal and syntactic. This means that Halliday's theory looks at the impact of how we use language. Halliday suggests language serves a purpose in our lives rather than being a set of rules for communication.

    Halliday views language as a system in which we make choices every time we communicate.


    Ideational linguistic features describe how we use language to take in experiences. It is made up of 'experiential function' and 'logical function'.


    Experiential linguistic features refer to grammatical choices that help us attach meaning to everything we come into contact with: our surroundings and our feelings. It's how we make sense of the world around us and our place within it.

    An example of this feature is when children interact with objects around them.

    It is clear they are using language (non-verbally) to construct a response to their experience with the object. If they were enjoying playing with a toy, we would see them smile, suggesting they will start to associate this toy with happiness. They will build on their interpretations every time they play with the object.


    This feature describes the semantic relationship between clauses, helping to explain how we link sentences together in a way that makes sense to us.

    When a sentence contains two or more clauses, the speaker chooses whether or not to give them equal weight in the sentence or place emphasis on one or the other. Halliday believes this choice represents the speaker's view of the experience.

    For example, take a look at these two sentences:

    'School was good and we also went to my friend's house later in the day'

    'I had the most amazing time at my friends' house after school! We played for hours and ate cake, but school was good too.'

    Both sentences suggest school was good and that the speaker had a good time at their friends' house. However, in the second sentence, the speaker emphasises going to their friend's house by putting it first in the sentence and elaborating on the event. This suggests they had a better time at their friends' house than at school.

    This is an example of how the speaker's choice to emphasise their experience at their friends' house subtly reveals their experience, as the choices we make reflect our attitude towards their day.

    Task: Describe your day to yourself. Think about what you place emphasis on when you speak. Is it what you expected?


    This function allows speakers to convey their complex and diverse emotions to those around them, helping people to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships with people around them. It not only encompasses what they are saying but how frequently they discuss a topic, indicating its value in their life. The interpersonal function reflects our mood, modality, and polarity.

    A basic example could be one of your friends continuously talking about someone but insisting they don't like them. The fact they are talking about them a lot could be an indicator that they are fond of them. This is not always true, but when someone talks about something or someone a lot it can be assumed they like the chosen topic as they see it relevant in multiple scenarios.


    This function describes the grammatical systems that manage the flow of discourse. The textual function is both experiential and interpersonal as it is language itself - it relates to the rules of language and how it flows in conversation.

    This system is both structural and non-structural. It is structural in the sense that it relates to the choice the speaker makes in the way they order their sentence (the clauses at the end reduce the emphasis on this part of the sentence). It is non-structural in the sense that speakers do not always need cohesive ties between sentences for them to make sense.

    For example, if you are talking to a friend while walking along, something that catches your eye might cause you to momentarily change the subject matter to something unrelated, but this would still make sense to the listener.

    'My work is going well thanks. I am excited to start a new project next month because- Woah did you see that person's jacket?! It was so cool! '

    This example demonstrates how our surroundings cause us to briefly deviate from the point, but it does not mean our sentence doesn't make sense to the listener(s).

    Halliday - Key Takeaways

    • Halliday sees language as a cultural code that teaches us how to be part of society, rather than simply being a method of communication.
    • In 1975, he published 7 functions of language that describe the way children use language. These functions are: instrumental, regulatory, interactional, personal, imaginative, representational, and heuristic. These functions offer a comprehensive framework for analyzing the diverse purposes and uses of language in communication.
    • Halliday argued children can communicate before they can talk. As soon as the child can cry or make facial expressions, language is present as children can communicate their feelings through facial expressions and actions.
    • There are 3 linguistic functions in Halliday's theory: Ideational, Interpersonal, and Textual.
    • Halliday believes we are always making choices in our language and communication.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Michael Halliday

    What is the theory of Halliday?

    Michael Halliday was a language theorist who studied how children learn language. His theory is called 'The Theory of Language Development'. 

    What is language and linguistics, according to Halliday?

    Halliday views language as a social function that helps us learn how to become part of society. Halliday suggests language serves a purpose, allowing users to build relationships and exchange meaning. It is more than a set of rules.

    What are Halliday's functions of language?

    Halliday describes 7 functions of language (1975): instrumental, regulatory, interactional, personal, imaginative, representational, and heuristic.  These functions offer a comprehensive framework for analyzing the diverse purposes and uses of language in communication. 

    What are the three basic functions of language?

    There are 3 linguistic functions in Halliday's theory: Ideational, Interpersonal, and Textual.  

    Why is it that language is key to all human activities?

    Language is key to all human activities because it enables communication, helping us exchange opinions and ideas and understand our surroundings.

    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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