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Concourse 2

Teaching functional language



Two definitions

If you have followed the guide to form, function and meaning, you will be familiar with the fact that a functional approach to analysing language is one which:

starts from the understanding that language is primarily a tool for getting meaning across and that it is best analysed by looking at the functions bits of the language actually perform.

A functional view of language lies at the heart of a communicative approach to teaching it.  Communicative Language Teaching is defined elsewhere on this site as:

an approach to teaching which focuses more on successful communication than structural or formal accuracy.  There are two forms:
Weak form: in which the study of grammar is combined with a focus on function but communicative competence remains the objective.
Strong form: in which there is no study of structure or form at all.  Competence in this area is deemed to flow from authentic language use alone.


a word of caution

If you take the strong form of the approach, you may bewilder and worry your learners, many of whom take the view that, although they need above all to communicate effectively, learning the formal structures, grammar, lexical systems and pronunciation of the language is part and parcel of being able to do so.
They would not be alone in thinking so.  As Widdowson puts it:

 ... language learning is essentially learning how grammar functions in the achievement of meaning and it is a mistake to suppose otherwise.
 .... A communicative approach does not involve the rejection of grammar. On the contrary, it involves a recognition of its central mediating role in the use of and learning of language.
Widdowson (1990: 97/8)

Add in lexical systems and pronunciation and you have (probably) the majority view.


Analysing functions

This is not the place to repeat what has been said in the guide to form, function and meaning but two essential aspects stand out:

  1. Form and function do not exist in a one-to-one relationship.  A single form can realise a number of functions and a single function can be realised in a number of linguistic ways.
  2. Functions rarely occur in isolation.  Communication is a two-way process and the participants need to respond to the other person's functions with those of their own.

Think about those two statements a little and see if you can exemplify what they mean.
Click here when you have done that.

It becomes obvious that we can't teach functions one at a time.  There is very little point in being able to make an offer if you can't understand or produce the possible responses.


What to teach?

Two key publications listing lots of functions 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

When we are teaching structure or lexis, it is quite straightforward to select by the level of the students what language to teach, building on previous knowledge to extend our learners' repertoire and lexicon.  In other words, we teach the easy, common stuff first and leave the hard grammar and lexis till later.
When it comes to choosing a function or set of functions to focus on, however, things get more difficult because it is harder to state that, e.g., apologising is more difficult than asking for directions or greeting people is easier than asking for their opinion.

For example, even an apparently simple function such as saying sorry can be realised linguistically at various levels of complexity:


So, much depends on the language we teach to allow our learners to realise the function.

Because, as you know, there is no one-to-one relationship between form and function, this means that the same function may be addressed a number of times, each time extending and developing the amount of subtlety and sophistication in language use.

However, it is possible to have a rough idea about which functions should be taught at each level based on:

  1. how frequently they are likely to be needed and
  2. how complex the language is that we need to express the function

Here's a very rough guide related to the Common European Framework of language levels.

A1 / A2 B1 / B2 C1/C2
apologising/accepting apologies
asking/talking about ability
asking about/talking about likes and dislikes
asking for/giving/refusing permission
asking about/talking about plans
asking for/giving information
asking for/giving opinion
asking about/talking about wants
asking for/giving directions
making/suggesting arrangements
offering/accepting help
phatic statements
saying goodbye
thanking/accepting thanks
asking/talking about intellectual attitudes
asking for/giving opinion
asking/talking about obligation
attracting attention
expressing degrees of certainty
expressing degrees of gratitude
expressing remorse/regret
expressing deductions
expressing sympathy
expressing (dis)interest
expressing hope
expressing surprise
expressing fear
expressing forgetfulness
making/confirming/suggesting alternative arrangements
socialising formally
suggesting/responding to suggestion
beginning a meal
correcting others
expressing (dis)satisfaction
expressing degrees of (dis)agreement
expressing moral shock
expressing indifference
expressing desire
expressing disappointment
expressing worry
expressing disbelief
granting forgiveness
inquiring whether invitation is accepted or declined
inquiring about whether something is remembered
proposing a toast
recommending courses of action
tact in declining
* The term suasion appears in all three columns.  It has been defined as the category of utterance designed to affect the behaviour of others (Wilkins, 1976: 46).  In other words, getting things done, and that's something we all need to be able to do.  Go to the guide to suasion, linked below, on this site if you need to know more.

As was said, this is a very rough guide indeed.  There's no doubt, for example, that learners at all levels may need many of the functions, such as expressing disbelief, which are listed under more advanced levels.  It is also the case that learners' needs and settings vary and what is appropriate to teach to one learner may be unnecessary or inappropriate in another case.
It is, however, somewhere to start.


Teaching functional language

4 things to consider before you plan to teach

The intentions of the participants
Learners need to be aware of what they want to do with the language.
    Am I offering something, demanding something, asking for something, persuading someone or what?
There is a clear difference between interactional and transactional purposes.
However, where the dividing lines are and how the terms are used in the profession are not quite so clear.
Transactions have clear goals and often involve service encounters and communication in specific settings (shops, services, offices, factories etc.).
Interactions, on the other hand, are concerned with oiling social wheels and getting along with other people.
It is important to be aware that most encounters involve both kinds of language.  Even when you are only buying a sandwich some of what is said will be purely interactional (greetings, expressions of gratitude, politeness forms etc.) and some will be purely transactional (expressing needs and wants, giving information about price etc.).
The context and setting
You can't learn, use or understand language in a vacuum.  Where people are talking and what they are doing are important data.  For example, a conversation at work will differ from one in a café, a letter to a friend will differ from one to a landlord and so on.
The relationships
Who the people are, what the power relationships between them are and even what their ages and sexes are is important information.
The medium
Am I speaking, reading, texting, emailing, writing formally, scratching a quick note or what?  All of these will affect what language I select and the style of what I say / write.

Think of examples of the way in which what we say is affected by these 4 considerations and then click here.

Here's a cut-out-and-keep overview.  Click here if you would like a copy as a PDF file.




Spoken language is often presented via a dialogue (read or heard) or some other kind of text.  It can also be embedded in interaction in the classroom.  Whether this is done after the learners have tried to express the target function for themselves (a Test–Teach–Test approach) or at the outset (a Present–Practise–Produce approach) is not our concern here.
Visuals or other aids help to make the setting clear but learners still need the information under the 4 sections above to make sense of the input.

At lower levels such dialogues can be pretty short and simple, along the lines of:

A tourist approaching strangers in the street.

  1. Excuse me, can you tell me where the Police Station is?
    I'm sorry, I'm a stranger here.
    Oh, well, thanks anyway.
  2. Excuse me, can you tell me where the Tourist Information Office is?
    Err, I'm not too sure.  I think it's in the station.  Down there on the right but you should ask someone else.  I may be wrong.
    OK.  I'll try that.  Thanks.
  3. Excuse me, can you tell me where the City College is?
    Yes.  It's just down here.  Go to the end of the road, turn right and it's on your left.

This is a simple way to introduce how to use an indirect question to make a request for directions and the three ways to respond to it.  The dialogues can be read, seen, heard or all three.

At higher levels, things can get a bit more sophisticated.  For example,

speak The situation:
John and Peggy are colleagues who have worked together for a long time.  They do the same job.
Julie is their boss.
Peggy is single and lives alone.
John is married to Angela who works in a hospital and has two school-age children.
In their break, they are discussing holiday dates and trying to reach agreement.
Listen to / read / watch the conversation and see how they try to persuade each other.
Peggy: Fine.  OK.  Right.  Head Office has asked me for my holiday dates this year, by the way.
John: I got the same email.  They ask earlier every year.
Peggy: Don't they, though? (laughs) Anyway, I was, well, thinking a bit about it and ... err ... thought, you know, I'd like to get away in summer for a change.
John: Oh, that's a change for you.
Peggy: Yes, well, actually, it's because someone's asked me to go with them to Greece.  In August, actually.
John: I can see that's tempting but it's a bit awkward.  We can't both be away.  Julie will never stand for it.
Peggy: I know.  She's made that pretty clear.  It's just that this is really important to me.  And, well, I was thinking, you always get, I mean, nearly always, some time in August.  I know that's because of the kids and all but I was wondering whether you could, like, erm, take July instead.  Would that work for you?
John: It might I guess but Angela's already asked for time in August and it might be too late.  They're pretty strict at the hospital nowadays.
Peggy: I know it's a bit awkward and so on but could you see if Angela could change her dates?  I don't need to go until the last two weeks of August.
John: Ouch.  Angela's booked the first three weeks already and the kids aren't back from camp until the end of July.
Peggy: I can see it's difficult but this matters to me, John.
John: I know it does.  But what can I do?  You know Angela.
Peggy: Yeah, well, if that doesn't work, we could talk to Julie and see if we can overlap for a week.  If we talk to her together, she might bend a bit.  I can't see it'd matter all that much.
John: OK.  Let's see if she's got some time this afternoon.  OK?
Peggy: Yeah, thanks John.

What language in particular is being presented here?  Click here when you have an answer.



Before learners can effectively and confidently produce language, it needs to be highlighted and practised.  There are lots of ways to do this, including:

  1. Listening to and repeating parts of the dialogue, aping intonation and so on.
  2. Memorising the dialogue and acting it out together.
  3. Reading the dialogue in a way that makes one or other of the characters aggressive or meek.
  4. Using the dialogue as a model to construct one in a similar vein on a different subject.
  5. Practising small parts of the dialogue focusing on the intonation and stress on the main verb in things like
        I can see it's difficult
        I can see that's tempting
        I know it does.

or any combination of these and other ways.



It isn't really difficult to set up a similar situation and then get the learners to do the negotiating.  However, we must bear in mind that:

For example:

You share a flat with two friends and take it in turns to babysit once a week for your landlady (who reduces the rent).  There are three roles (Learners A, B and C):

  1. It is your turn tomorrow.  You have a new boy/girlfriend who has invited you out so you don't want to babysit.  This is important to you.
  2. You know it is A's turn and you have done the babysitting for him/her twice this month already.  You have an essay to write and want the evening to yourself.
  3. You are free tomorrow evening but you want to go to the cinema to see a film you have read about.  The last night of the film is tomorrow.

This will have to be a carefully monitored exercise and the learners will need time to prepare it together before they act it out.  They may need quite a lot of input and help.
Then they can try again with no preparation and different partners (with the same or a different scenario).  And again, probably.  It may seem a bit dull to you to do the same thing three or four times but if you change the grouping and alter the scenario, it won't be for your learners.
By the way, the learners may also need a nudge to realise that they can agree to appeal to the landlady and see how important babysitting actually is tomorrow (see the model dialogue and the agreement to appeal to Julie).

Related guides
form, function and meaning for the essential guide to the differences
suasion for the guide to a particular type of function: getting other people to do things
requestives for a guide in the in-service section to a teachable area of suasion
adjacency pairs for a guide in the in-service section explaining what they are and supplying a list of common ones
the index to essential functions for the index to this area in the initial plus section
the in-service functions index this is where you will find links to more technical guides

Van Ek, J and Trim, J, Waystage 1990, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Van Ek, J and Trim, J, Threshold 1990, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Widdowson, H, 1990, Aspects of Language teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wilkins, DA, 1972, Linguistics and Language Teaching, London: Edward Arnold