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In enumerating his claims about the trajectory of children's language development, Halliday eschews the metaphor of "acquisition", in which language is considered a static product which the child takes on when sufficient exposure to natural language enables "parameter setting". By contrast, for Halliday what the child develops is a "meaning potential". Learning language is Learning how to mean, the name of his well known early study of a child's language development.
Halliday (1975) identifies seven functions that language has for children in their early years. For Halliday, children are motivated to acquire language because it serves certain purposes or functions for them. The first four functions help the child to satisfy physical, emotional and social needs. Halliday calls them instrumental, regulatory, interactional, and personal functions.
- Instrumental: This is when the child uses language to express their needs (e.g.'Want juice')
- Regulatory: This is where language is used to tell others what to do (e.g. 'Go away')
- Interactional: Here language is used to make contact with others and form relationships (e.g. 'Love you, mummy')
- Personal: This is the use of language to express feelings, opinions, and individual identity (e.g. 'Me good girl')
The next three functions are heuristic, imaginative, and representational, all helping the child to come to terms with his or her environment.
- Heuristic: This is when language is used to gain knowledge about the environment (e.g. 'What the tractor doing?')
- Imaginative: Here language is used to tell stories and jokes, and to create an imaginary environment.
- Representational: The use of language to convey facts and information.
According to Halliday, as the child moves into the mother tongue, these functions give way to the three metafunctions of a fully tri-stratal language (one in which there is an additional level of content inserted between the two parts of the Saussurean sign [clarification needed]). These metafunctions are the ideational, the interpersonal, and the textual.
Halliday's work represents a competing viewpoint to the formalist approach of Noam Chomsky. Halliday's concern is with "naturally occurring language in actual contexts of use" in a large typological range of languages whereas Chomsky is concerned only with the formal properties of languages such as English, which he thinks are indicative of the nature of what he calls Universal Grammar. While Chomsky's search for Universal Grammar could be considered an essentially platonic endeavor (i.e. concerned with idealized forms), Halliday's orientation to the study of natural language has been compared to Darwin's method.
- ... language said not merely to reflect social structure. For instance, he writes:
- ... if we say that linguistic structure "reflects" social structure, we are really assigning to language a role that is too passive ... Rather we should say that linguistic structure is the realization of social structure, actively symbolizing it in a process of mutual creativity. Because it stands as a metaphor for society, language has the property of not only transmitting the social order but also maintaining and potentially modifying it. (This is undoubtedly the explanation of the violent attitudes that under certain social conditions come to be held by one group towards the speech of others.) 
- Bernstein, Basil (1975). Class, Codes and Control: Towards a Theory of Educational Transmissions. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975 [^]
- Halliday, M.A.K. (1975). Learning How to Mean, London: Edward Arnold. [^]
- Ogden, C. K. & I. A. Richards (1923). The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. [^]
- ↑ Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. "An interpretation of the functional relationship between language and social structure," in: Uta Quastoff, ed., Sprachstruktur – Sozialstruktur: Zure Linguistichen Theorienbildung, 3-42. Reprinted in Volume 10 of Halliday's Collected Works. Edited by Jonathan Webster. London and New York: Continuum. 2007.