Functions of Language

The following video provides an overview of language and meaning (the next couple of sections):

The content in this section is from the following open textbook:

Interpersonal Communication: A Mindful Approach to Relationships

Author(s):  and 

Functions of Language

Based on research examining how children learn language, it was found that children are trying to create “meaning potential.”6 In other words, children learn language so they can understand and be understood by others. As children age, language serves different functions.

Instrumental and Regulatory Functions

Children will typically communicate in a fashion that lets parents/guardians know what they want to do. When children are born, parents/guardians have to figure out if the child is hungry, thirsty, dirty, or sick. Later, when the child acquires language, the child can let the parent/guardian know what they want by using simple words like “eat” or “drink.”

Instrumental functions use language to fulfill a need. In Chapter 2, we learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For us to meet our needs, we need to use language that other people understand.

Language can help us define what we can or cannot do. Often, you might see campaigns that say “Don’t drink and drive” or “Don’t text and drive” to help control behaviors while driving.

Regulatory functions of language are to influence the behaviors of others through requests, rules, or persuasion. These functions do not necessarily coincide with our needs. These might be advertisements that tell us to eat healthier or exercise more using specific products.

Interactional and Imaginative Functions

Interactional functions of language are used to help maintain or develop the relationship. Interactional functions also help to alleviate the interaction. Examples might include “Thank you,” “Please,” or “I care about you.”

Imaginative functions of language help to create imaginary constructs and tell stories. This use of fantasy usually occurs in play or leisure activities. People who roleplay in video games will sometimes engage in imaginative functions to help their character be more effective and persuasive.

Personal Functions

Next, we have personal functions, or the use of language to help you form your identity or sense of self. In job interviews, people are asked, “how do you describe yourself?” For some people, this is a challenging question because it showcases what makes you who you are. The words you pick, as opposed to others, can help define who you are.

Perhaps someone told you that you were funny. You never realized that you were funny until that person told you. Because they used the word “funny” as opposed to “silly” or “crazy,” it caused you to have perceptions about yourself. This example illustrates how words serve as a personal function for us. Personal functions of language are used to express identity, feelings, and options.‌

Heuristic and Representational Functions

The heuristic function of language is used to learn, discover, and explore. The heuristic function could include asking several questions during a lecture or adding commentary to a child’s behavior. Another example might be “What is that tractor doing?” or “why is the cat sleeping?” Representational functions of language are used to request or relay information. These statements are straightforward. They do not seek for an explanation. For instance, “my cat is asleep” or “the kitchen light isn’t working.”

Cultural Functions

We know a lot about a culture based on the language that the members of the group speak. Some words exist in other languages, but we do not have them in English. For instance, in China, there are five different words for shame, but in the English language, we only have one word for shame. Anthropologist Franz Boas studied the Inuit people of Baffin Island, Canada, in the late 1800s and noted that they had many different words for “snow.” In fact, it’s become a myth over the years that the Inuit have 50 different words for snow. In reality, as Laura Kelly points out, there are a number of Inuit languages, so this myth is problematic because it attempts to generalize to all of them.8 Instead, the Eskimo-Aleut language tends to have long, complicated words that describe ideas; whereas, in English, we’d have a sentence to say the same thing. As such, the Eskimo-Aleut language probably has 100s of different words that can describe snow.


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