Halliday's Communicative-Functional Model Revisited: A Case Study

Article excerpt

The author of this study investigated the variety of functions used by a bilingual infant to provide further evidence for the communicative-functional approach to child language acquisition, compared the development of pragmatic functions in a monolingual and a bilingual child, and devised a categorization system that can be applied to child language acquisition data by other researchers in the field. Accordingly, data collected from a Persian-English bilingual child during a period of 10 months, as part of a longitudinal study, were analyzed, and a taxonomy of pragmatic functions the participant used was established. Analysis of the data indicated that despite certain differences in the frequency and distribution of pragmatic functions the participant employed in the present study (bilingual) and those used by Halliday's monolingual child, the two studies demonstrated that both children developed pragmatic functions from a very early age. The theoretical implication of this study is that the development of pragmatic functions is a natural tendency in young children, whether monolingual or bilingual. The practical outcome of the study is a proposed categorization system that is intended to facilitate the analysis of child language acquisition data from a communicative-functional perspective.


Noam Chomsky's revolutionary ideas about the nature of language and processes of language acquisition had a great impact on early research in child language acquisition. As a result, the focus of research in the late 1960s and early 1970s was on the child's creative use of language, especially syntactic productivity (Bowerman, 1973; Brown, 1973; Klima & Bellugi, 1966; Menyuk, 1969; Park, 1970;). This focus, as Harris (1992) argued, tended to obscure the fact that both the child's early experience and use of language take place in well-established social contexts. As a reaction to this purely syntactic view of child language acquisition, Brunet developed his social theory of child language development in the mid1970s. In his seminal papers Bruner (1975a, 1975b) argued that young children do not encounter and acquire language as an isolated phenomenon but rather within the rich context provided by the social interaction that takes place between the child and adults. This social interaction presents the child with a framework that provides vital support for the task of acquiring language. According to Brunet, the child is able to take account of the sociointeractional framework because the language that he or she hears typically provides a commentary on, and interpretation of, the interaction in which the child is currently taking part. The close relationship between the social context and the language that the child hears assists the child in "cracking the code" of language.

Bruner's original and most important insight was that children learn about language in the highly familiar contexts of social exchanges with caretakers, in particular, parents. According to Bruner, the familiar social context helps the child to interpret the language that occurs within it because caretakers typically use language to interpret and comment on the social context. The child's knowledge of the social context, and especially of the routines that occur within it, allows him or her to "crack the code" of language that accompanies social interaction.

It is essential to note that Bruner's views, as Harris (1992) asserted, were firmly located in more general lines of research that strongly emerged in developmental psychology and linguistics after the 1970s. The first of these was research into the social abilities of infants, which showed that children are born into the world as highly social beings endowed with a range of abilities that prepares them to develop complex patterns of interaction with the adults around them (Bates, 1976; Garvey & Hogan, 1973; Harris & Coltheart, 1986; Maccoby & Martin, 1983; Schaffer, 1989a, 1989b; Snow, 1979). …