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Language as Doing Things: The functional Perspective

This article is posted to continue my previous posting, it is about Language and Communication. The question “Why do we use language?” seems hardly to require an answer. But, as is often the way with linguistic questions, our everyday familiarity with speech and writing can make it difficult to appreciate the complexity of the skills we have learned. This is particularly so when we try to define the range of functions to which language can be put. Language scholars have identified many functions (“macro-functions”) to which language can be put. Thus

1.  B├╝hler (1934) distinguishes between
a.   The symptom function, i.e. information pertaining to the speaker.
b.   The symbol function, i.e. information pertaining to the world.
c.   The signal function, i.e. information pertaining to the hearer.

2.  Jakobson (1960) emphasizes different aspects of the speech event:

emotive, expressive, affective
referential, cognitive, denotative
phatic, interaction managment

He filled out this model as follows:
The “addresser” sends a “message” to the “addressee”. To be operative the message requires a “context” referred to, seizable by the addressee, and either verbal or capable of being verbalized; a “code” fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and addressee, enabling both of them to enter and stay in communication.
3.  Habermas (1976) in turn conceives of the
a.   Representative function as connected with “the” world.
b.   Expressive function as connected with the “own” world of the speaker.
c.   Interactive function connected with the “shared” world of the communicants.

4.  Halliday (1978) stresses three semantic functions:
a.   The ideational function concerned with the expression of experience; to transmit information between members of societies.
b.   The interpersonal function concerned with the regulation of social relations; to establish, maintain and specify relations between members of societies.
c.   The textual function concerned with structuring the act of speech; to provide texture, the organization of discourse as relevant to the situation.

The definition of the functions of language is elaborated at various points in Halliday’s writings.
Thus, in a study of a child learning his mother tongue, he used a framework of seven initial functions:
a.   Instrumental (“I want”): satisfying material needs.
b.   Regulatory (“do as I tell you”): controlling the behaviour of others.
c.   Interactional (“me and you”): getting along with other people.
d.   Personal (“here I come”): identifying and expressing the self.
e.   Heuristic (“tell me why”): exploring the world around and inside one.
f.    Imaginative (“let’s pretend”): creating a world of one’s own.
g.   Informative (“I’ve got something to tell you”): communicating new information.
These are arranged in the order in which they appeared from 9 months onwards, before the child had a recognizable linguistic system. Halliday speaks of there being several meanings in each function. Learning the mother tongue is interpreted as progressive mastery of a number of basic functions of language and the building up of a “meaning potential” in respect of each.

5.  Hymes (1962), following Jakobson, 1960) proposes seven “broad types” of functions which language in use serves:
a.   Expressive / emotive.
b.   Directive / conative / persuasive.
c.   Poetic.
d.   Contact (physical or psychological).
e.   Metalinguistic (focusing on meaning).
f.    Referential.
g.   Contextual / situational.
He argues that these seven functions correspond, in general terms, to various factors to which speakers attend in speech situations. Appropriate language may depend on different combinations of:
a.   Sender.
b.   Receiver.
c.   Message form.
d.   Channel (e.g. speech versus writing).
e.   Code (e.g. dialect, language or jargon).
f.    Topic.
g.   Setting or situation.
Generalising over speech events, he abstracts the roles of addressor (sender) and addressee (receiver). The addressor is the speaker or writer who produces the utterance. The addressee is the hearer or reader who is the recipient of the utterance. Knowledge of the addressor in a given communicative event makes it possible for the analyst to imagine what that particular person is going to say. Knowledge of his addressee constrains the analyst’s expectations even further. Thus, if you know that the speaker is the prime minister or the departmental secretary or your family doctor or your mother, and you know that the speaker is speaking to a colleague or his bank manager or a small child, you will have different expectations of the sort of language which will be produced, both with respect to form and to content. If you know, further, what is being talked about, Hymes’ category of topic, your expectations will be further constrained. If then you have information about the setting, both in terms of where the event is situated in place and time, and in terms of the physical relations of the interactants with respect to posture and gesture and facial expression, your expectations will be still further limited.
The remaining features of context which Hymes discusses (in 1964) include large-scale features like channel (how is contact between the participants in the event being maintained – by speech, writing, signing), code (what language, or dialect, or style of language is being used), message-form (what form is intended – chat, debate, sermon, fairy-tale, etc.) and event (the nature of the communicative event within which a genre may be embedded – thus a sermon or prayer may be part of the larger event, a church service). In later recensions Hymes adds other features, for example key (which involves evaluation – was it a good sermon, a pathetic explanation?, etc.), and purpose (what did the participants intend should come about as a result of the communicative event).

Hymes’ theory of communicative competence (1972) played an important role in introducing a new perspective on language into reflection on language teaching. Hymes situates language in its social context as the medium by which members of a speech community express concepts, perceptions, and values which have significance to them as members of this community. Language, then, can only be understood within the framework of the meaning structures of the relevant speech community, and the study of language therefore needs to operate within a sociological and sociocultural framework. This implies that the teaching of language needs to accommodate this dimension of meaning and enable learners to operate effectively within the relevant speech community. According to Hymes the rules of appropriacy linking forms to contextual features were not simply to be grafted on to grammatical competence, but were to be acquired simultaneously with it.
This perspective on language underpinned work on notional / functional syllabuses (Wilkins, 1976; Finocchiaro and Brumfit, 1983) and the communicative approach to language teaching (Widdowson, 1978). As a result of this line of reflection, language came to be seen as social action and the social or functional uses which learners were to make of the language became the starting point for the development of learning programmes. Communicative language teaching (CLT) arose out of this perspective on language and, on this basis, set out to develop an approach to teaching whose goal was to enable students to use the language in one or more socially defined contexts. In this view, language learners are social actors whose learning goals are defined by the contexts in which they will be required to use the language and the messages they will wish to convey in these contexts.

Wilkins (1976) proposed a notional or semantic approach which would reflect the behavioural needs of learners, would take the communicative facts of language into account from the beginning, without losing sight of grammatical and situational factors, and would attempt to set out what the learner might want to do and to say through language.

In order to set out what people might want to do and to say through language, Wilkins drew upon Austin’s (1962) speech act theory. This suggested that in addition to conceptual meaning all utterances have an illocutionary value which embodies the speaker’s intention. Sometimes we express our intention directly, (for example, “I congratulate you”), but more often, as Searle (1975) pointed out, we tend to do this indirectly, for example, when we use a question about someone’s ability (“Can you speak a little louder”) to serve as a request for action. This highlights the fact that we do not use an interrogative form, for example, uniquely to ask for information, or a declarative form simply for giving information. There is no simple one-to-one relationship between particular forms and the illocutionary values that should be attached to them. Values must be interpreted in the light of the context in which the forms occur.

Pragmatic competences”, another component of communicative competence, refer to this knowledge and skills. As defined by the Council of Europe (2001), they are concerned with the functional use of linguistic resources (production of language functions, speech acts), drawing on scenarios or scripts of interactional exchanges. It also concerns the mastery of discourse, cohesion and coherence, the identification of text types and forms, irony, and parody. For this component even more than the linguistic component, it is hardly necessary to stress the major impact of interactions and cultural environments in which such abilities are constructed.
The sources will be published in my last posting about language and communication

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BA said...

nice post

Online Unsolved Mysteries Story | Corner Mystery said...

i think very usefull.... nice info Brad ^_^

Ian J said...

Very informative. Great insight on language, reminds us how complex our brains are to understand, not just oral communication, but body languages as well.

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