Language Functions and TEFL

Language Functions, Linguistics

When we talk about Language Functions, we are talking about the reason we use a language. This can be contrasted with grammar which is how the language works.

Functions are why we use language: to greet people, to order a meal, to ask the time and so on. Grammar, on the other hand, is how words fit together so we can understand each other.


At its most basic, the reason we use language is to communicate with each other; we use language to give and receive messages.

We can break this down into Language Functions. When we communicate with language we can:

  • compare and contrast: both cars are fast, but the Mercedes costs more
  • make a complaint: this toaster doesn’t work
  • express emotions: I love you
  • persuade someone: please will you come to the mall with me?
  • give advice: if I were you, I’d wear the red dress
  • ask for something: can you lend me a couple of dollars?
  • ask for something politely: would you please help me lift this?
  • hide the truth (lie): your new haircut looks great!
  • warn: watch out!
  • give information: the bus leaves at 6 sharp
  • explain a process: here’s how we make soap…
  • apportion blame: it’s his fault

and so on and so on…

Each language function can often be associated with certain grammatical forms. For example, when we are being polite we often use modal verbs‏‎:

Might I borrow your pen?

Compare this to when the language function is one of demanding:

Give me your pen!

Although each language function deals with one main communicative need, it can cover different situations.

For example, “Asking for information & directions” can be used not only in the context of tourists finding their way round town but also with new employees who need to find their bearings in a large firm. The same goes for “Instructing others”. Here the relevant language will be about giving orders, making strong suggestions etc. these can be used at work but also outside work at a hotel, when hiring a car, ordering a meal, etc.

Language Functions and TEFL

As TEFL teachers we should mainly concentrate on language functions rather than grammar. This means that instead of saying:

Today we’re going to learn about forming questions.

We should say:

Today we’re going to learn how to ask for information.

The first is grammatical and the second is functional.

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