Functions of Language

One of the main goals of language teachers is to provide students with the tools to be effective communicators in the TL. Often when students are assigned projects and assignments (like the weather report in Anna’s case study) their lack of practical tools to produce the actual language becomes evident. In these cases, students might very well have the necessary resources to accomplish the task, but teachers might need to consider a communicative approach to teaching the language, focusing on the functions of language, to properly equip students to complete assigned tasks. In this section we will explore functions of language and how they can be taught in the SL classroom.
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Anna's case study

What is communicative language teaching?

The concept of communicative language teaching has grown out of the notion that solely teaching grammar is not enough to prepare students for using the language independently. This method of teaching proposes that students need to understand the meaning and the communicative function of a language in order to learn the language.

David Wilkins, a theorist closely linked with communicative language teaching, suggests that language teaching should be organized into notional (relating to meaning) and functional (relating to communication) syllabi. He suggests that the concept of communicative functions (to which he credits Holladay) may be the most important aspect of this framework. Other contributors to this theory, such as Jan van Ek, build on Wilkins’ terms and ideas, but interpret them somewhat differently. In place of communicative function, they substitute language function, referring to what people do through language. To learn more about communicative language teaching and its history click here.

What are language functions?

A lot of what we say is for a specific purpose. Whether we are apologizing, expressing a wish or asking permission, we use language in order to fulfill that purpose. Each purpose can be known as a language function. Savignon describes a language function as “the use to which language is put, the purpose of an utterance rather than the particular grammatical form an utterance takes” (Savignon, 1983). By using this idea to structure teaching, the instructional focus becomes less about form and more about the meaning of an utterance. In this way, students use the language in order to fulfill a specific purpose, therefore making their speech more meaningful.

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What are some examples of functions of language?

If we think about a function of language as one that serves a purpose we can see that much of what we see can be considered to be functional. Let's take the example of going to a dinner party. Arriving at the dinner party we may introduce ourselves, thank the host and ask where to put our coats. During the dinner we may congratulate someone on a recent accomplishment, ask advice, express affection and compliment the host on the meal. Each of these individual utterance are considered functions of language.

Brainstorm and record 20 additional functions of language.

How can we teach functions of language?

Krashen and Terrell (1983) suggest that basic communication goals can be expressed in terms of situations, functions and topics. It is up to the teacher to plan the situations within which students will be able to use their language for a purpose in the classroom context. For instance if the topic being learned is family and relatives then the situation may be introductions or visiting relatives. By creating a situation the teacher is providing the necessary context students need to use the language for a function.

In addition to creating situations, teachers must also be prepared to explain that there may be a large number of possible ways to fulfill each function of language. For instance greeting an elderly lady on the street would differ from greeting a peer in their home. Choosing the appropriate way in which to say something will partly depend on:

1.  your social standing relative to the person you are talking to;
2.  how well you know the person;
3.  who is listening; and
4.  the circumstances under which the communication occurs.

Open this link to look at some materials called Language Ladders, and note their similarities and differences as a way of answering the following three questions:

What is a language ladder?
What are the characteristics of a language ladder?
What is the PURPOSE of a language ladder?

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What is a language ladder?
A language ladder is a resource that models different ways to express oneself through different functions of language

What are the characteristics of a language ladder?
Each language ladder encompasses one function of language.  The ladder includes several ways in which the function of language can be expressed ranging from formal to less formal.  The language ladder also includes a visual in order to provide some context for the learner and is written in the Target Language.

What is the PURPOSE of a language ladder?

The purpose of the language ladder is to provide language learners with the tools needed to express different functions of language in multiple contexts and situations. By using language ladders in the classroom, teachers are able to provide supports and structure for students so that they can learn and use functions of language successfully.   Language ladders be used to introduce new concepts, review previously learned materials or as everyday supports for classroom commands and expressions. Language ladders could also be used as an activity for students where they are responsible for creating their own.

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Copyright © Olenka Bilash May 2009 ~ Last Modified June 2009