Using Language Functions to Learn and Teach English

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A language function explains why someone says something. For example, if you are teaching a class you'll have to give instructions. "Giving Instructions" is the language function. Language functions then require certain grammar. To use our example, giving instructions requires the use of the imperative.

  • Open your books.
  • Insert the DVD into the drive.
  • Purchase your ticket online.

There is a wide range of language functions. Here are examples of guessing, expressing wishes and persuading—all language functions. 


  • He might be busy today.
  • She must be at work if she's not at home.
  • Maybe she's got a new boyfriend!

Expressing Wishes

  • I wish I had five million dollars!
  • If I could choose, I'd buy the blue car. 
  • I'd like to have a steak, please. 


  • I think you'll find our product is the best you can buy.
  • Come on, let's go have some fun! What can it hurt?
  • If you give me a moment, I can explain why we should do this deal.

Thinking about which language function you'd like to use helps you learn phrases used to accomplish these tasks. For example, if you want to make a suggestion you'll use these phrases:

  • How about ...
  • Let's ...
  • Why don't we ...
  • I'd suggest we ...

Using Language Function in Your Learning

It's important to learn correct grammar such as the tenses, and when to use relative clauses. However, if you think about it, it's probably just as important to know why you want to say something. What is the purpose? What is the language function?

Teaching Language Functions

Teaching language functions can lead to confusion at times as it's common to use a wide range of grammatical structures for each function. For example, when expressing wishes students might use the present simple (I want ...), conditional sentences (If I had the money, I could ...), the verb 'wish' for past and present wishes (I wish I had a new car / I wish she had come to the party), and so on. When teaching, it's best to mix language functions with grammar. Provide functional language as students are ready to learn. In the example above, using "I wish I could go to the party" will likely confuse lower level students. On the other hand, "I'd like to go to the party" or "I want to go to the party" is appropriate for lower level classes. 

Generally speaking, the more advanced a student becomes the more they will be able to explore language and improve increasingly subtle functional demands. Here's a short overview of some of the most important language functions by level. Students should be able to accomplish each task by the end of the course. Naturally, students should also master language functions of lower levels:

Beginning Level

Intermediate Level

  • Making predictions
  • Comparing and contrasting people, places, and things
  • Describing spatial and time relations
  • Relating past events
  • Expressing opinions
  • Showing preferences 
  • Making suggestions
  • Asking for and giving advice
  • Disagreeing 
  • Asking for a favor

Advanced Level

  • Persuading someone
  • Generalizing about topics
  • Interpreting data
  • Hypothesizing and speculating
  • Summarizing 
  • Sequencing a presentation or speech

Grammar-Based Learning or Function-Based Learning?

Some courses try to focus on only functional based English. However, I find these courses fall short as the focus is often on NOT speaking about grammar. Unfortunately, students need explanations. Focusing only on function can turn into an exercise of just memorizing specific phrases for specific situations. Mixing the two gradually as students improve their understanding of the underlying grammar will help students put appropriate phrases into use to obtain their functional goals. 


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Your Citation
Beare, Kenneth. "Using Language Functions to Learn and Teach English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Beare, Kenneth. (2020, August 26). Using Language Functions to Learn and Teach English. Retrieved from Beare, Kenneth. "Using Language Functions to Learn and Teach English." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).