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Concourse 2



you know all the words, and you sung all the notes, but you never quite learned the song
The Hedgehog's Song, Incredible String Band, 1967

form etc

Form, function, meaning

There's more to learning a language that learning its words and its grammar.  Much more.
What we are talking about is form, function and meaning.

refers to the grammar, the words and the pronunciation of the language (as well as peripherals like its alphabet).
refers to things we actually do with language like asking for help, offering help, saying something isn't true, inviting people and so on.
arises from a combination of the two, as we shall see.

one to many

One form can have different functions

For example:

This language ... ... could mean
It's cold in here Please shut the window (a request)
Please turn on the heating (a different request)
This is the reason I'm getting my coat (an explanation)
I'm not comfortable (a complaint)
Are you very busy? I want to know if you are busy (a real question)
I need some help (a statement of fact)
I want you to do something for me (a request for action)
I think you are time wasting (a reprimand or criticism)

You can see from these examples that one form can have more than one meaning.

think Task 1: If this is true, how on earth do we choose the right form to realise the function?  Well, how do we?
Think for a minute and then see the answer.

functions and forms

One function can take different forms

The other side of the coin is that we can use a number of forms to 'realise' the same function.  If I want to advise you, I can say:
    You should
    You ought to
    Do you think it wouldn't be a good idea to ...?
Here's another set of examples.

This function ... ... could be achieved by ...
I want you to close the window Please shut the window (a polite order)
It's cold in here (a statement)
Do you think we could have the window shut? (a complex question)
I want to get your help with something Are you very busy? (a question form)
Can you give me a hand? (a question form)
I'm having trouble with this (a statement)
Do me a favour (an order)

think Task 2: If this is true, how on earth do we choose the right form to realise the function?  Well, how do we?
Think for a minute and then see the answer.


How many functions are there?

Lots.  However, it's quite easy to find lists which include items such as giving / getting permission, asking for and giving factual information, apologising and accepting apologies, expressing hopes and wishes and so on.
Two key publications are from the Council of Europe and are available on the web:
Waystage 1990 by Van Ek and Trim
Threshold 1990 by Van Ek and Trim
Waystage contains a long list of functions and notions for lower levels and Threshold does the same for more advanced learners.


Teaching implications

think write Task 3: Think what these might be.  Try to find an implication for each of the three factors (intention, context and relationship) and then compare your list.


Adjacency pairs

Functions often come in pairs, because one function often requires its counterpart(s).  For example, asking for someone's name is a useful function to control but less so if you don't know how to respond by introducing yourself.  Here are some more:

apologising accepting or rejecting apologies
asking for permission granting or denying permission
asking directions giving directions
expressing anger placating

and, of course, it makes sense to teach and practise them together.  There's not much point in being able to ask for permission 3 different ways if you are unlikely to understand the response.
If you would like a list of some common adjacency pairs, click here.

test Task 4: Take the test.


Learn more about communication

guide topic (new tabs) description
form, function, meaning learn some more about forms and functions and how they work
teaching functions find out more about teaching functions