It’s About Being Functional

Have you ever wondered how military servicemen are deployed to foreign lands without spending years learning the language, yet they are able to survive? they do so thanks to functional language learning.

In cooperation with Sophie’s Dream Toastmaster Club, I am currently teaching a functional language learning course to a group of five Dongguan ladies, all of them speak little to no English. They are not heading into battle, they simply want to be independent when traveling abroad. The course is designed to last six weeks only and will develop two of the seven functions of language: the instrumental and the regulatory functions. The third week of the course has just finished, and the students are surprised at how they can solve many travel issues in English in such a short time.

Allow me to elaborate more on these two functions. The instrumental function refers to the language used to attain a certain aim to effectively influence the listener in order to fulfill a need or desire. A traveler’s main concern is to successfully express what they want, need, like and have. Given that most travelers are often familiar with the traveling process, developing functional language simply requires them to acquire the vocabulary they will encounter as the trip unfolds and combine it with the practice of the above-mentioned expressions.

With regards to determining what the regulatory function of language is about, it is helpful to consider the commands students will hear at security-checks. These can range from “Take off your shoes” to “I was wondering if you’d mind taking off your shoes.” Learners ought to be exposed to the wide variety of forms used to impart the command, though they need not master them all. Learning to sift through the words that carry meaning allows functional language learners to respond appropriately when dealing with authorities. Being able to utter their own forceful requests using one or two forms can be useful in a more high-stake situation.

The WHAT is a fundamental part of teaching/learning. What to teach is easy to transfer from one person to another, that is why language centers choose certain teaching books. Teaching oral English, though, is much more challenging since teachers must find ways to get students to speak. In simpler words, the method of teaching, the HOW, is what makes a teacher stand out. Both in ESL and EFL, how to teach is tantamount to the secret ingredient in the famously sought-after Coca-Cola? formula. Therefore, to answer this question for myself and my team of teachers, I have been refining our way of teaching for over a quarter of a century, resulting in the 3Q? Method. This method works equally well for memorizing vocabulary as well as to develop mastery of grammar structures. To illustrate both applications of the method, we must circle back to our group of travel functional learners. Upon introducing vocabulary related to the areas of an airport, for example, students are asked a series of questions (three question types, hence the name) in one of several purposely chosen sequences. We call these sequences of questions drills, they allow students the opportunity to recycle through all the vocabulary while answering contextual information, in this case, travel. A similar approach is used to work with grammar.

Several important elements are at play when combining functional language training and our method of teaching. First and foremost, these students generate contextual language around 50 percent of the time since they take part in a dialogue that engages cognitive linguistics. Their language learning is embodied and situated in a specific frame of reference, namely, the resolution of travel scenarios. Secondly, the learners build confidence in their ability to speak the language from day one since the method forces them to constantly make answer choices independently; for them, realizing they are producing language naturally and functionally is enormously satisfying. Lastly, thanks to the “crescendo” feature of the drills, which are used invariably throughout the entire course, the students develop an automatic feel for the correct answer even when asked at normal speech cadence.

The foundations developed in these functional courses allow for continued self-learning since students can now dissect any sentence they encounter and determine what will eventually give them mastery of the English language: the three question forms and the three possible answers. As you would imagine, this approach can be applied to any spoken language, anywhere and at any time. It is worth mentioning functional language training is not suitable for children.