Wednesday, 10 June 2015

A Small Amount of Linguistically Interesting Theory

by Catriona Ellis

So at the moment I’m undergoing research for an essay about second-language acquisition and the differences and similarities that can be achieved by adults moving into an environment where the spoken language is not the same as their own mother tongue and where children who are exposed to two languages from birth. 

However, before I can actually look at how successful second language acquisition (SLA) is for these two groups of people, I must first understand the past and current theories associated with not only SLA, but language acquisition in general.

There are many theories of SLA and more specificly child language acquisition (CLA), but Chomsky’s theory of ‘Universal Grammar’ and Skinner’s theory of ‘Learned Behavior’ (which were developed in the 1950’s and 60’s) and are perhaps still the most well known today. However, it has been Halliday’s systemic functional linguistic model of language that has caught my attention: ultimately, Halliday proposes that children develop and use language for seven functions:

·         Instrumental: to express needs (“Want juice”)
·         Regulatory: to tell others what to do (“Go away”)
·         Interactional: used to contact or form relationships with others (“Love you, mummy”)
·         Personal: to express emotion, opinions and identity (“Me good boy”)
·         Representational: to convey facts and information
·         Heuristic: to gain knowledge about the environment (“What the tractor doing?”)
·         Imaginative: to tell stories and jokes

Halliday also argues that language serves an intrinsically sociable value, stating that he studied “language as the creature and creator of human society,”[1] which is clear to see through his inclusion of the Interactional, Personal and Imaginative functions to language in his most prominent theory. In this way it is possible to deduce from Halliday that the primary reason for language acquisition in children is to integrate into society and form human relationships, something that other theorists of language acquisition do not include as the crucial purpose of human language. 

However, it is not simply Halliday’s theories that I find interesting, but the application of them to real life examples. Below I have quoted examples from Dan Clayton’s article on child language acquisition (CLA) from emagazine 34, which I feel clearly illustrate some of Halliday’s seven functions. The extracts come from Ruby, Stan and Liam, three children who are acquiring language and whose utterances have been recorded over a three year period. The ages of the children are in brackets at the end of the sentence in the form (years, months.)

a)      Ruby: dat (pointing at a biscuit tin, age 1,6)
b)      Stan: I want a biscuit, daddy (3,6)
c)      Stan: Can I have a biscuit, daddy? (3,9)
d)      Stan: Please can I have a biscuit, daddy? (4,2)
e)      Liam: I’m hungry, daddy (4,9)
f)       Liam: Stan’s had a biscuit (4,9)

In the first extract, Ruby is using the Instrumental function, expressing her desire, or need, for a biscuit, by pointing and saying “dat”. However, she may similarly be showing the Regulatory function because the utterance is also clearly a demand for someone to get her a biscuit from the tin. As the children grow up, the Interactional function comes in to play as Stan uses polite words such as “can” and “please” to form a respectful relationship, understanding that in this way he is more likely to get what he wants. Nonetheless, Liam’s extracts show an altogether different use of language - indirectness - and this happens to be another common trait of present day language in the UK.

Examples e) and f) display Liam stating either his own or someone else’s states, showing the Personal and Representational functions respectively, but it is his indirectness that illustrates his linguistic advancement, because it is with these utterances that Liam shows his awareness of pragmatics and social conventions, allowing him to then access more sophisticated conversation, thus furthering his language acquisition.

So there we have it: a small amount of linguistically interesting theory to wet anyone’s appetite who’s interested in linguistics, and more specifically in SLA. If anyone really is fascinated and wants to find out more, I recommend reading up on Chomsky’s ‘Universal Grammar’ as well as the theories of Skinner, Piaget and Krashen, then you may understand a little more of how you, along with the rest of the human race, developed the phenomena that is reserved only for human use: language.

[1] Michael Halliday,

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