Functions in a language

Most of us will agree that a language is used to perform a variety of different things – these things are called functions.

It is used to make statements, ask questions, express emotions, direct people, etc.

It is clear that language is used to perform practical everyday functions, although the number of functions can indeed, be disputed from a linguistic or a socio-linguistic point of view, but let’s keep our feet squarely on the ground here.

We could argue that functions in a language refer to what language items do in the real world – what we want to achieve in communication terms.

Some language items, however, cannot be taken at face value as flat, binary communication episodes, from speaker A to speaker B.

For example, “ Where do you think you are going?” has a clear meaning, if taken literally, but within a language function, it means, “You are not supposed to go there!”

Halliday (1975) identifies seven language functions (although his research was done with monolingual children.) :

  • Instrumental: Language used to express needs.
  • Regulatory: Language used to tell others what to do.
  • Interactional: Language used to make contact with others and form relationships.
  • Personal: Language used to express feelings, opinions, and individual identity
  • Heuristic: Language used to gain knowledge about the world.
  • Imaginative: Language used to tell stories and jokes, and to create an imaginary environment.
  • Representational: Language used to convey facts and information.

Jakobson’s model of the functions of language distinguishes six elements, or factors of communication, that are necessary for communication to occur:

(1) Context

(2) Addresser (sender)

(3) Addressee (receiver)

(4) Contact

(5) Common code

(6) Message.

Each factor is the focal point of a relation, or function, that operates between the message and the factor.

The functions are the following :

(1) Referential (“The Earth is round”) describes a situation, object or mental state.

(2) Emotive (“Yuck!”) “Wow, what a beauty!”

(3) Conative (“Come here”) “Fred! Come inside it’s bed time!”

(4) Phatic (“Hello?”) provides the keys to open, maintain, verify or close the communication channel: “Hello?”, “Ok?”, “Hummm”, “Bye”…

(5) Metalingual (“What do you mean by ‘krill’?”) is the use of language (what Jakobson calls “Code”) to discuss or describe itself. (All this article is an example of metalinguistic Function).

(6) Poetic (“Smurf”) “the message for its own sake”


Leaving the linguist’s point of view aside, functions in a language refer to why we use a language to communicate, in a variety of formal and informal ways, which in turn require specific grammatical structures and vocabularies.

Savignon describes language functions as, “The use to which language is put, the purpose of an utterance rather than the particular grammatical form an utterance takes” (Savignon, 1983).

Some of the specific functional purposes in language are (and you can perhaps think of others) :

  • To compare and contrast
  • To order people to do things
  • To ask permission
  • To apologise
  • To thank
  • To persuade
  • To ask questions
  • To express likes and dislikes
  • To talk about cause and effect
  • To summarize
  • To sequence
  • To predict
  • To agree/disagree
  • To greeting people/introductions

The interpersonal metafunction of a language covers all the ways in which we interact through language.

This includes the basic mechanisms of interaction, such as turn-taking and interruption and also the ways in which we set out to achieve things by using language.

By using the ideas of functions in a language, teaching (and thereby learning) focuses more on the meaning and the goals of communication and less on the form, with learners using language to achieve specific purposes and achieving more targeted goals.

Along with clear learning objectives, this will help us to effectively address learning goals and thus craft language learning to the specific needs of our learners.

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