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Functional Basis of Language

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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:

  • 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 StudySmarterWe can use language to ask questions (Pixabay)

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 Linguistics

Sounds fancy, but what does it mean?

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 functionalist 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 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 StudySmarterThe informative language function refers to the communication of information (Pixabay)

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 view of language is Michael Halliday, a British linguist who pioneered the systemic functional linguistics model of language, which we'll look at shortly. Before we do, 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 StudySmarterSystematic functional linguistics views grammar as a tool to facilitate communication (Pixabay)

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 an 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

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

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.

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

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

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".

Final Functional Basis of Language Quiz

Question

What is Halliday's theory?

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Answer

Michael Halliday was a language theorist who studied how children learn language. His research stemmed from his son Nigel and how he learned to communicate. Halliday views language as a cultural code that teaches us how to be part of society, rather than simply being a method of communication.

Show question

Question

Why does Halliday believe language is present in children before they can actually speak?

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Answer

Halliday highlights that 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.

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Question

True or False: Halliday came up with six functions of language in 1955.


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Answer

False. Halliday came up with the seven functions of language in 1975.

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Question

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


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Answer

True

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Question

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

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Answer

Developmental functions

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Question

Which of the following are examples of instrumental language?


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Answer

I want

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Question

True or false: Interactional language helps us form bonds with people.


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Answer

True. Interactional language is how we form relationships with others as it encompasses the communicative function of language. It is how we relay our thoughts and emotions, strengthening bonds with those around us.

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Question

What are some examples of interactional language and why do they help us form relationships with people?


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Answer

'I love you mum' or 'Thank you so much' are examples of interactional language. They help us bond with people around us by revealing the emotions and opinions of the speaker.

 

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Question

When does Phase 2 of language development occur?


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Answer

18-24 months

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Question

Which of the following would we expect a child to use in phase two?


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Answer

Where's blankie?


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Question

What two functions is an ideational linguistic function made up of? 


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Answer

Logical and experimental.

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Question

How does the interpersonal linguistic function allow people to express emotions?


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Answer

This function allows speakers to convey their complex and various emotions to those around them. The interpersonal function not only encompasses what the person is saying but how frequently they talk about the topic, indicating its value in their life. 

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Question

True or False: The interpersonal function describes the grammatical systems that manage the flow of discourse.


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Answer

False. The textual function that describes the grammatical systems that manage the flow of discourse. The interpersonal function is how people express emotions and opinions.

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Question

What are Halliday's functions of language? 


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Answer

Halliday published 7 functions of language in 1975. These functions are instrumental, regulatory, interactional, personal, imaginative, representational, and heuristic.

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Question

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


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Answer

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

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Question

What is the main concern of functional linguistics?

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Answer

Looking at language as a tool for aiding communication and supporting social interactions. 

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Question

What is a semiotic?

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Answer

Anything that uses signs and symbols to communicate meaning. 

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Question

What is another term used for 'functional linguistics'?

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Answer

Functional basis of language

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Question

What is the key idea behind the nativist approach to child language acquisition?

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Answer

Language is innate and children are born with an understanding of language.

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What is the key idea behind the cognitive approach to language acquisition?

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Answer

That language development coincides with cognitive development

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What is the key idea behind the behaviourist approach to language acquisition?

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Answer

Language learning is strongly linked with conditioning. 

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What is the key idea behind the social approach to language acquisition?

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Answer

Language learning is largely dependent on social interaction and the Language Acquisition Support System.

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Question

Which of these is the focus of functional linguistics?

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Answer

Mastering social functions

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What are the three basic functions of language?

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Answer

  • Directive 
  • Expressive
  • Informative

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Question

What is informative language?

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Answer

Informative language is language that informs or educates, and can be used to share information and facts. 

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What is directive language?

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Directive language is language that instructs. It can be used to give commands or instructions, or make requests. 

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What is expressive language?

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Answer

Expressive language is language that is used to express oneself and our ideas, beliefs, opinions, and emotions. 

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Question

Who came up with the seven functions of language?

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Answer

Michael Halliday

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Question

What are Halliday's seven functions of language?

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Answer

  • Personal
  • Representational
  • Heuristic
  • Pragmatic
  • Regulatory
  • Instrumental
  • Imaginative
  • Interactional

Show question

Question

Which of the following are the three semantic structures present in systemic functional linguistics? 

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Answer

Interpersonal meta-function

Show question

Question

Define 'structuralism' in linguistics.

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Answer

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

Show question

Question

At the very foundation of functional linguistics, there is the belief that language is inseparable from social functions. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is the function of a TV reporter’s language as they share the news with an audience?

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Answer

Informative

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What is the function of your best friend’s language as they express their worries about starting their new job?

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Expressive

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What is the function of your driving instructor’s language as they tell you to take the next left turn?

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Directive

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What is the function of your caregiver’s language as they ask you to set the table before dinner?

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Answer

Directive

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Question

How many functions of language did Halliday suggest?

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Answer

7

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Question

Which of the following are Halliday’s functions of language?

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Answer

Instrumental

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Question

Which of the following are Halliday’s functions of language?

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Answer

Heuristic 

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According to Halliday, systemic functional linguistics:

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Answer

Sees grammar as a tool to facilitate more effective communication of meaning.

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Question

Halliday suggested that communication and language acquisition begins before children can speak. True or false?

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Answer

True

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Question

Halliday views language simply as a method of communication rather than a cultural code that helps us be part of society.

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Answer

False

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Question

The instrumental function refers to the use of language to:

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Answer

Fulfil a need

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The regulatory function refers to the use of language to:

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Give commands, requests, or persuade

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The interactive function refers to the use of language to:

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Form relationships with others

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The personal function refers to the use of language to:

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Tell stories and create imaginary friends or concepts

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The heuristic function refers to the use of language to:

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Give commands, requests, or persuade

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The representational/informative function refers to the use of language to:

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Request information

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The imaginative function refers to the use of language to:

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Answer

Tell stories and create imaginary friends or concepts

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Question

Halliday suggested that crying and facial expressions are a way of communication and therefore language is present. True or false?

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Answer

True

Show question

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