What do you think is the fastest way to fluency in a second language?
Is it the bottom-up approach, where you learn all of the grammar rules and construct your sentences one word at a time? Or is it the top-down method, where you absorb language just like you did as a child, using contexts and acquisition to speak fluently?
I personally believe that we have to use both methods, but that language students at all levels really need to pay more attention to functional language. It’s an amazing way to boost English fluency and communicate clearly!
What is ‘functional language’?
In a nutshell, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s language which has a specific purpose. Functional language is actually the first language we learn as children. “I want” or “no!” are perfect examples of language essential to communicate our needs to our parents.
Funnily enough, functional language is what we first learn when beginning a second language. We travel with our pocket dictionaries and/or translate apps and spout out fixed phrases which help us to be polite in a new country and ask what we want.
For example, while traveling in the last few years, I picked up these essential phrases: “Xin chào” “sabaidi”, (Hello) “Comment allez-vous?” “Como estas? (How are you?) “terima kasih”, “cảm ơn” (Thank you).
As tourists, we learn these phrases as a unit… or as language teachers call them: lexical chunks. We don’t learn the individual grammar rules for the sentence, “How are you doing today?” It’s easier and more efficient to memorize it as a piece of functional language!
When and why do we use functional language?
It turns out, functional language is incredibly useful in every classroom. It helps us to clarify when we don’t understand something, it helps us to work together to complete tasks, and helps us to compare and contrast our ideas. It’s absolutely essential for English fluency!
In The Ladies’ Project, for example, we all come from different countries around the world, and English is our common language.
This means that every member of our online community is immersed in the language and always uses English… even when they get stuck! Because of this, we teach our ladies some incredibly useful phrases to get them unstuck.
Ladies learn to problem solve in Engish and this contributes amazingly to their English fluency!
Here are some examples:
1: What do you say when you don’t understand?
We use a video platform called “Zoom” to have massive video chats from 2-15 people in one conversation! Sometimes we can’t hear each other clearly because of audio problems or background noise. What functional language can we use in this situation?
- I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you. Can you repeat that?
- Can you repeat what you said?
- I didn’t catch that! Can you say that again?
2: How to start a sentence over again
Even when we are speaking our native language, we sometimes get tongue-tied! Now imagine what it’s like speaking a different language using a webcam to an audience of 15 inspiring women!
It’s inevitable that we will sometimes mess up. Luckily there are some phrases we can use to reset 🙂
- Let me try that again.
- Actually, let me start over!
- Oops, let me start from the beginning.
3: Keeping the conversation going!
If we are unfamiliar with conversing online, or if we are introverted and are meeting ladies for the first time, sometimes we don’t quite know how to naturally keep the conversation going! One lady may share a really interesting idea, and we don’t know how or when to respond. These phrases are a great way to keep the conversation going.
- What do you think, ___________? (Always use someone’s name!)
- What about you, ______________?
- I completely agree with you, and…
- I see what you mean, but…
Functional language is the bridging language that helps to move from one idea to the next. It is absolutely the key to achieving English fluency.
How to practice functional language
One of the best parts of English is the fact that there are dozens of ways to say the same thing. The phrase “How are you” for example could also be “How are you doing?” / “How’s life?” / How’s life been treating you?”
It’s almost impossible to remember all of these different functions! So don’t worry if you can’t remember all of them! Instead, choose one or two and practice them. When you are comfortable, you can add in another.
At The Ladies’ Project, we’ve been giving speaking workshops to help our newest ladies feel confident in online conversations. We give each lady a list full of functional language that will get them out of trouble.
I tell the ladies in my workshop the same advice:
- Keep a list of phrases next to your computer and learn one phrase at a time.
- Every time you use a phrase, put a checkmark next to it ☑️! It will help you to track your progress.
- When you feel comfortable, add another phrase to your list!
What are some examples of functional language you can think of?
Do you have any functional language for agreeing or disagreeing? What about functional language for giving your opinion? I’d love to read some of your examples in the comments!