Published 5th November 2015

Functional language is language that we use to perform certain functions, such as giving advice, apologising, agreeing or ordering in a restaurant. If you are living in an English-speaking country, every day you will need to be able to perform a number of different functions in English.  We, as EFL teachers, can help our students to be able to function effectively by focussing on and practising such functions.

But how do we do this?

First of all, you must realise that there are a million and one different functional situations and each situation has a load of different language items which would be completely appropriate. If you think of how many different ways you can agree with someone, then you see our point. So don’t feel like you need to teach everything. Choose only a few structures relevant to your students and their levels. Limiting the number of structures taught ensures that they will be remembered, rather than forgotten as soon as the lesson is over.

Then, use communicative activities to demonstrate and practise these functions. By their very nature, these language structures relate to a certain situation; use this in role-plays or dialogues to help your students place the language in context. In this way, when the situation arises in the real world, the student will be reminded of the EFL classroom and remember the language particular to that context.

Repetition is key when it comes to functional language. Functional language items lay the foundations for successful communication in a language and, at a higher level, can help the speaker sound more natural. Functional language also needn’t be fixed. Though there may be times when the language needs to be an exact phrase, there is still plenty of room for creativity. In this sense, though students are learning functional language, they are still learning language which could be useful in many other situations.

Essentially, teaching functional language can allow our EFL students to communicate in a number of different situations in English, even if their level of English is not particularly high. Learning functional language can be done by learning language chunks which can then be used again and again when the particular situation arises. So even if your students have difficulty communicating in more complex English, they will be able to make themselves understood and sound more natural in a number of different situations. You will find your students appreciate learning these chunks, too, as they provide an immediate take-away from the EFL classroom which they have available to use then they need to.