11 things I learnt in London – a pseudo-ethnographic exploration of British vs Singaporean culture

How time has flown. As of the 5th July 2011, I’ve been living in London for 11 years. It was 11 years ago when I wrote a ridiculous feature called ‘a Singaporean Bimbo in London’ for a Singaporean newspaper and it still makes me giggle to remember the girl that I was. Looking back, there has been some valuable lessons in those 11 years, somewhere…and perhaps living here both as a participant and an observer could somewhat make me an ethnographer of London pop culture, albeit not a systematic or academic one. On that note, here are the top 11 things I’ve gathered from my past 11 years.

1. Personality

My assumption: Enthusiasm and confidence are clearly positive things.

My experience: I used to greet my fellow housemates with a loud and cheery ‘Good Morning!’ and one day, overheard a conversation between two of my housemates that went something like this, ‘What’s she on? Nobody can be that enthusiastic. I can’t trust her. It seems so insincere’.

Lesson learnt: Enthusiasm and overconfidence can be regarded with suspicion (especially coming from a woman)

2. Intonation

My assumption: Coming to a country that speaks the same language, I immediately assumed that what I said would be understood in the same way too. Now, if you are not familiar with the Singaporean accent, imagine putting the word stress on the last syllable of every word, and the last word of every sentence. Now imagine this situation.

My experience: I was living a houseshare and the bins regularly were filled up but not emptied. After taking out the bins for the 11th time, I politely asked a housemate, ‘Could you take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ I later heard rumours that I was very aggressive, and so I tried to change the way I said things, ‘I was wonderING if you could possiBLY take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ to no avail. To them, I was still aggressive.

Many years later, when shown Gumperz’s research that featured two different accents saying ‘That’s the wrong one. It’s the Wembley account,’ to a bank manager and how they were perceived differently, I suddenly realised that the unconscious placement of my sentence stress and intonation had created an impression I had no intention of making.

Lesson learnt: Accents may be part of your identity, but that identity could be misconstrued (so please don’t judge me for changing my accent…)

3. Forming new friendships                                                               

My assumption: The thought of moving overseas almost seems like an adventurous prospect. A chance to start over, to start afresh.

My experience: Most people I have met have close friends they have met at university or at school, and those seem to be the main friends that stay with you for life. Coming to a new environment in my mid-twenties only means that most people already have an established circle of friends, and this makes the task of making friends even more challenging.

Lesson learnt: By starting afresh, this includes the social circles that you’ve built. And if you don’t go to the pub, you might have problems making new friends.

4. Indirectness

My Assumption: People say that the Brits are very indirect and pride politeness.

My experience: I wrote long-winded work emails in the belief that I was being polite and indirect. When asking for time-off, I would write 3 paragraphs explaining why I needed it. When I received what I considered to be curt and abrupt replies, I spent nights worrying that I had offended them.

Lesson learnt: Generalisations can backfire. Context is everything. Regarding emails, it is totally acceptable to get to the point.

5. Perceptions of attractiveness 

My assumption: Being cute and silly is what you do when you flirt. Girliness=Sexiness. When showing affection, hit the member of the opposite sex playfully.

My experience: When I did the very same things that would have worked for me back in Singapore, the guy I was hitting (on) said, ‘What’s up with you? Grow up!’

Many years later, I had a heated discussion with a British friend about what she thought was the ‘infantilisation of women’ in Far Eastern cultures…strangely, we never saw it as infantilisation…just uh…cute?

Lesson learnt: What is considered attractive and flirty can be extremely different culture to culture.

6. Machismo

My assumption: Being romantic, liking romantic comedies and cheesy love songs are not gender-specific characteristics. (Some of my male Korean students will even attest to romantic comedies being their favourite genre of films)

My experience: Countless discussions with British and European men quickly brought light to the fact that it is just not cool for a man to like romantic films and cheesy love songs. This is further affirmed by the phrase ‘chick flicks’. But it is not just the British men who are wary of the Hollywood brand of romance. Several years ago, when I heard someone say, ‘Your eyes are like the stars in the sky’, I instantly responded with a cynical ‘Oh please…’, at which point I thought, ‘Oh my! I’m turning British!’

Lesson learnt: Cliched romantic notions could be considered not just very girly, but rather insincere.

7. The Media

My assumption: In Singapore, there is a relatively heavy-handed censorship of the media. The number of tabloid newspapers and reality TV shows far exceeds those in my country.

My experience: A student pointed out to me that she found it admirable that the mass media in Britain constantly chides celebrities for having cheated on their wives. When I probed further, she said that many women in her culture would not want to talk about their partner’s infidelity as they feel it might be a reflection of their unattractiveness. She added that if such news was in the papers in her country, the men would probably want to pat the celebrity on the back and celebrate his manhood. The open criticism of such behaviour in the media, whether it be on tabloids or the Jeremy Kyle Show leads to a public mentality that cheating is unacceptable, no representation of one’s manliness and definitely not the norm.

Lesson learnt: Tabloid media can serve to uphold certain values in society and reflect the beliefs and the values of a culture (and can be good ‘fry-your-brain’ entertainment too).

8. Studying

My assumption: When I was at school, the popular kids were always the ones who had the straight As, in addition to excelling in other extra curricular activities like the piano, dance, chess. The boys who studied hard were the ones other boys wanted to be, the ones that the girls were drawn to.

My experience: I was never really the hard worker or the star pupil back at school, but perhaps growing up and finding a passion for teaching and Applied Linguistics has propelled me to put quite a bit of effort into my teaching qualifications. But I soon realised that one’s grades or knowledge is not something one should publicise.

Lesson learnt: Studying and the procurement of knowledge is best done quietly (otherwise you’ll be known as a nerd)

9. Class

My assumption: Having money and being upper class are considered desirable qualities. Coming from a country that had moved from third world to first world in such a short period of time, a rat race had developed to push people to compete so as to learn more, produce more and achieve more. The fight for status and the 5 Cs (Cash, Car, Career, Condominium, Credit Card) was what elevated the country’s economic status.

My experience: The rich and upper class are sometimes treated with disdain. Many have a fierce pride in their regional accents. People protest against bankers’ wages. Of course, it is no secret that the TEFL world I work in is populated by liberals in pursuit of fairness, but I would like to think that it is a fair representation of the majority.

Lesson learnt: Being or sounding posh can be detrimental in the UK. Obviously, I frown upon any kind of discrimination, but the citizens of the UK can be proud to be striving towards the values of altruism and meritocracy.

10. Wit 

I could almost write a whole blogpost dedicated to this. But better yet, read pop anthropologist Kate Fox’s ‘Watching the English’ which dedicates a whole chapter to this topic, and a whole section to irony.

My Assumption: There are several things I had taken forgranted in this area. Among these are – humour is important but just one of many character traits that could be nice to have; Mr Bean was a good representation of British humour; winding someone up is usually done with malice. But the examination of different brands of humour deserves much more than just a few throw-away sentences that can hardly summarise the underlying features of what we intrinsically find funny.

Situation: Couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a Singaporean friend’s video on Facebook that was shot during a house party. A boy at the party teases a female friend as being very girly in front of the others, she throws her hands up, stomps her feet in a girly manner and screams, ‘Ai yoh! Don’t sabo (Singaporean English short for sabotage) me! You always like that one!’ (translation: Oh my! Don’t tease me! Why are you always like that?) and the rest of their friends laughs along at her display of ‘cuteness’.  Upon watching this video, I intrinsically found myself laughing adoringly, relating to the scenario. There was a part of myself that understood that brand of humour, despite knowing that there was a stark difference between that and British wit. At that moment, I realised that humour was something deeply entrenched in our upbringing.

Lesson learnt: In Britain, humour is everything. Irony permeates everyday life and best delivered with a dead-pan face. I love the wit of Mock the Week, the self-deprecation of Little Britain, but I probably will never really be able to ‘do it’ the British way. And that’s ok.

Most importantly,

11. Speaking the same language does not mean having the same culture.

The above might seem pretty obvious, but it was something I simply hadn’t considered when I started living here. Basic concepts which I took for granted as universal were clearly not. And these are concepts no book about culture could shed light on.

I’m glad these 11 years have taught me that.

A Singaporean Bimbo in London – a newspaper article I wrote in 2000.

This is an article I wrote for a Singaporean newspaper called The New Paper (yes, I know…) 11 years ago, shortly after I arrived in London. In light of my 11th anniversary blogpost, I’m rehashing this article, published on 14 January 2001.

The few of you who are asking where the Triple Nine-cum-Speak Mandarin Campaign girl has been this last year. I’m back. All right, maybe not physically, but in literary spirit I am back to enliven my fellow countrymen of my discoveries in Europe. Mainly, the self discovery of the Singaporean bimbo.

Rumours that Chong Chia Suan had gone to London after her filming in Prague to ‘discover new showbiz opportunities’ were floating around. Fact is, upon realising the tip of my bimbo-quotient iceberg, I decided to stay on in Europe to uncover the rest of it.

It began in Prague when I mistook one of the assistant directors to be American when he clearly had a British accent. The truth was, no matter how I had pretended to be Ms-Know-All in the past, I really couldn’t distinguish accents very well. After all, this is the same girl who had to read the subtitles to Trainspotting to understand what the movie was all about.

A stuntman who saw that I did not know anything about Europe at all suggested that I go to London, it being the centre of the arts and everything, to learn a few things. My lesson began almost immediately as I crossed the channel from France to London by rail. My mind was instantly fogged with bimbo-ish ideas of france being on the other side of Europe from London. Voila! They were actually right next to each other. But, hang on a second, weren’t they supposed to be two big and different countries with separate cultures and languages, united by the one similar desire to beat each other at everything? So, how could they be neighbours?

Bimbotic revelations continued as I walked the streets of London, ecstatic that the places on my Monopoly board REALLY did exist. There I was, all by myself, in the middle of a busy street, jumping up and down, giggling uncontrollably and yelling to anyone who would listen, “Hey! Trafalgar Square! Piccadilly Circus! Bond Street and cheapo Old Kent Road!”

And I started to sob at the sight of those red toy buses and postboxes I used to play with, here, blown-up life-size, and moving for real.

At first, I thought I could get away with the excuse that being Singaporean, I lived a sheltered life and did not know quite as much about the rest of the world. My new Finnish flatmates soon caught on to the fact that my ill-knowledge of the world was incurable when I actually believed them when they told me that penguins were kept in residential backyards, and that polar bears were sold in pet shops in Finland. They found my stupidity quite funny at first, and repeatedly tried to convince me of ridiculous trivia which sounded perfectly plausible to me, starting with the high rates of deaths in Finland caused by men peeing out in the minus 50 cold to the number of Finnish people who lived in igloos.

I stood uncontested as the very personification of ‘bimbo’. For a while. They soon tired of insistence that the capital of Switzerland was Stockholm, Holland was just another name for Denmark, Budapest was a Middle-Eastern city, and Netherlands used to be part of Russia.

Thankfully, the people of England seemed to not only forgive, but are deliriously obsessed with stupidity. Top television programmes readily feature cerebrally-challenged people. Think Harry Enfield, the Monty Python Series, The Fast Show, and those of you not familiar with any of the above, you force me to mention – Mr Bean.

Compare this to the highly-rated programmes in Singapore which tend to feature more intelligent people like Mulder and Scully, Phua Chu Kang, the cast of Friends…er…well…never mind…

I must admit that following through with my bimbocity was rather fun and attention-grabbing at first, until it became really life-threatening. I openly told a Scotsman, who worked as a baked beans taster for a major supermarket chain (this is true!) that Scotland was part of England! Along with my lucky stars, the man had a great sense of humour, probably owing to his job, and I was let off the hook. My fellow actors in class, upon hearing about the incident, marvelled at how I survived it without landing in hospital.

Now you know why I cannot return to Singapore until I succeed in becoming remotely intelligent, or my trip would have been for nothing. Meanwhile, I am still trying to figure out if my flatmates were teasing when they said that salami was made from horsemeat.

Intercultural Dining Etiquette and Table Manners

This week, a future mother-in-law wrote a enraged email to her step-son’s fiancee criticising her fussy eating habits and lack of table manners after her visit to their family home. The email went viral and was published in the Metro on Wednesday, and this piece of authentic material soon found its way to the English language school. In the staffroom, a debate ensued as to whether the future mother-in-law or the supposedly impolite girl in need of finishing school was to be blamed, and it soon became apparent that this would make for great discussions in our classes. Nevertheless, my colleagues weren’t sure if the article would be suitable for my low-intermediate class. Determined to grade the tasks (and discussions) and not the text, I brought the article into my classroom, and the discussion that actually emerged was more interesting than I could have ever expected.

It soon became obvious during the reading and discussions that the mother-in-law’s perception of what was good etiquette and appropriate manners was very culturally biased. And the following questions regarding etiquette arose:

When you are a guest at someone’s family home,

1. Do you normally wait for everyone (including the female hosts) to be seated before starting on your food? Should you say something before starting?

2. If you don’t like something, should you force yourself to eat it or do you find a way to refuse? What would you say?

3. Do you normally take small helpings of the side dishes (e.g. the potatoes, salads, etc.) throughout the meal, or do you take one big helping that will last you for the rest of your meal?

4. Should you finish everything on your plate or can you leave some if you have had enough?

Question number 1 initially seemed to invite unanimous responses of ‘yes’es’ but after some probing, it was revealed that in Japan and Thailand, the female hosts of more traditional families often remain standing, waiting to serve the guests, and don’t sit down to eat until everyone else has finished.

Question number 3 brought up some interesting cultural differences. Most Europeans thought it appropriate to pile on one big helping  onto one’s plate right at the start of the meal, but most Chinese students found this rude. A meal was meant to be an occasion for sharing, and the ‘this is my share and that is yours’ attitude didn’t go down very well with them. Taking just one piece from a side dish and eating it before going for another piece was the accepted approach.

In response to question 4, the Arabic students agreed that in some families, finishing the food on a plate would mean more is desired, and this would prompt the host to refill the empty dishes with more food. This would usually be pre-empted with an offer to refill the plate, which the guest can politely refuse, but if the host is unable to speak English well, they might enthusiastically refill the plate without asking.

This discussion prompted more questions about guest etiquette to be written up on the board and the discussion continued in groups.

5. What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s house? What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s wedding?

Most students agreed that something should be brought but the items ranged from wine to food, and even flowers. As for weddings, most Asian and Arabic students agreed that money should be given as a present, much to the surprise of the Europeans. The Japanese, Chinese and Korean students all insisted that the start of a couple’s life together would cost a lot of money, and therefore, the guests should be obligated to give more than the cost per head. A wedding would therefore bring in a profit for the happy couple to have a headstart in life. The Europeans, however, saw it as the happy couple treating their friends to a meal, and shared concepts such as wedding lists.

6. Where should you sit when at the dinner table? How should you sit? Where should you place your hands?

Some cultures had elaborate rules when it came to seating positions, which was often based on seniority, and which direction the host should face. The Japanese and Koreans agreed that it was rude to cross one’s legs in front of those more senior than oneself, but they disagreed as to how to place one’s hands. In the Japanese culture, both hands (and arms) should be seen above the table at all times. One hand ought to be holding the bowl of rice while the other hand held the chopsticks. The Koreans, on the other hand (no pun intended), found the holding of the bowl to be ‘beggar-like’ and insisted that the bowl should be left on the table, while one hand picks from it either with chopsticks, or more commonly, a spoon. Elbows, we all agreed, should be kept off the table.

7. Where do you place the cutlery to indicate you are still eating? Where do you place them to show that you have finished your meal?

Those that used knives and forks agreed that placing them side by side on the plate indicated that one had finished with the meal, but there was less agreement as to what to do with cutlery in the middle of the meal. Some suggested we should cross our knives and forks on our plates to indicate that we were not finished, but some were adamant that this was rude. The use of chopsticks was less familiar for the non-Oriental students, who were surprised to learn that one must never stick the chopsticks in their rice bowl as it resembled the incense used when praying to the dead. The Oriental students all agreed that placing the chopsticks back down on the table beside the bowl was the most polite way to do this, although the Korean and Japanese students reacted in horror when the Taiwanese students remarked that they also placed them together across the top of the bowl.

8. How many courses are usually served, and in which order?

Talking about courses reminded me of an experience I had with some Spanish visitors who came to London some years ago. They had wanted to try some Chinese food, so I had some dishes delivered. You probably already know this, but the Chinese don’t typically do ‘courses’, except for dessert and tea/coffee. All the dishes are placed in the centre of the table, and each person gets their own bowl of rice. One then takes what they want to eat from the dishes in the centre and ‘shares’ the meal with everyone at the table. But when I placed the dishes in the centre of the table, my Spanish friends started to eat out of the vegetable dish until it was empty, and then proceeded onto the Lemon Chicken. Despite my continual insistence that they had to mix all the dishes together, they stuck to their belief that the ‘salad’ had to come before the meat dish, and the rice came last. Imagine my shock when they finished off the meal chomping down on the plain rice in their bowls once all the dishes were done with!

9.  What do you normally drink with your meal? Are there any codes of behaviour to observe?

The Chinese students were keen to state that Chinese tea was usually drunk after the meal and not during, contrary to what Chinese restaurants in London would have you believe. The Japanese students, however, saw drinking green tea during the meal as totally normal. While the tea at the Chinese table should be refilled by the person seated closest to the teapot, when it comes to alcohol at the Japanese and Korean table,
it is customary for people to refill each other’s glasses/cups, and not one’s own. But the most interesting comment came from the Koreans, who said that when drinking alcohol in front of someone more senior, one should always turn away (about 90 degrees from the person with more seniority) and sip from their glass with their hands covering it.

10. How much time do you usually spend at the dinner table?

This brought up some stark differences. Most Europeans and South Americans saw dinnertime as time for communication with the rest of the family, and would spend anything from 1 hour to 4 hours at the dinner table. Those from the Far East were more efficient with their meal times and would typically finish a meal in 5-20 minutes, unless a guest was present.

This lesson went on for about 3 hours, throwing up lots of useful lexis and grammatical structures in addition to very useful speaking practice. The discussion/debate was definitely not about what I had expected it to be, but going with the flow definitely allowed us to learn so much more about each other. In a time of international business dealings, an understanding of the social norms and etiquettes of different cultures is becoming more important than ever. And lessons could be made so much more fruitful if we could kill two birds exchanging such information whilst providing practice of English. Meanwhile, on a more selfish level, I’ve learnt lots too.

Gaelic – To Save or Not to Save

The Highlanders are generally quite proud of their heritage, their traditions, and their uniqueness. I know, because I’m engaged to one. From their faithfulness to Scottish football, to their pride in adorning the kilt and embracing Céilidh dances and the traditional events of the Highland games, one could say that a typical Highlander is in no doubt about his/her identity, and keen to show that to the world. So you can imagine my surprise when I met not just one but five Highlanders who all expressed annoyance at talks about saving Gaelic by encouraging children to study it at school and the introduction of Gaelic into bilingual road signs (see above picture). They unanimously argued that Gaelic is a dying language and that it is useless and impractical for their children to spend their time on – time which was presumably better spent on learning languages like Spanish or Mandarin. The bilingual road signs, they insisted, were the product of a profit-making scheme by the government to attract tourists to Scotland – tourists who might find Gaelic exotic and exciting.

While more than 6000 languages exist today, Swerdlow (1999) predicted that by the year 2100, the number of languages on our planet could fall to 3000. Schaefer and Ebokhare (1999) who investigated the loss of African languages in southern Nigeria concluded that English is giving rise to the abandonment of indigenous, minority languages. But this phenomenon of the global spread of English giving rise to the extinction of indigenous languages is not a new one. We in the UK need to look no further than Scotland and Ireland to see how English has not only taken over the local languages, but perhaps also their culture. If one believes in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that we see the world through the tinted lenses of the language we speak, then despite attempts to keep out the English, whether it be by historical wars waged by William Wallace or wearing ABE (Anyone but England) T-shirts at the World Cup, the Highlanders are already allowing the imperialism of their culture and their view of the world by taking on the English language.

In response to my passionate plea, these North-Eastern Highlanders claimed that Gaelic was not only unrepresentative of their identity, but that it was spoken mainly by people from the Western Isles such as those in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and that those in the East originally spoke Norwegian dialects. They then jokingly stated that if the government had wanted to preserve their historical roots, the road signs should have been in Norwegian. I found all this quite interesting, but a little hard to believe, so I decided to go ahead and do my own research on the origins of Gaelic.

While my friends are right about the fact that Gaelic is now seen as a regional language spoken largely on islands like Skye, Harris and Lewis, historically, it was actually the language spoken by the majority of Scotland. It is not clear how old Gaelic is but there is written evidence of the language dating back to as far as the 5th Century. Gaelic flourished for many centuries and even replaced Pictish as the main language of Scotland north of the River Forth in Edinburgh. It only began to suffer a decline in status as a national language in parts of mainland Scotland in the 13th Century, gradually being displaced by English. Ngugi (1986) describes how colonial powers devalue the culture of the local people and try to replace their language with that of the colonizer, and, in this way, control the way the people perceive themselves and the world, thus dominating and colonizing their minds. Yet, the Highlanders stubbornly resisted and the language survived.

The highland-lowland line emerged and Highland Gaelic, or what we know as Scottish Gaelic today, eventually became one that distinguished the Highlanders from the Lowlanders, who had their own brand of Lowland Gaelic, a dialect that is now completely defunct. Having been the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for many years, Scottish Gaelic preserves knowledge of pre-feudal ‘tribal’ laws and customs and was representative of the Highlanders and their traditions. These traditions, alongside the language, were unfortunately persecuted during the Battle of Culloden in 1746 where the Jacobites, made up of an army of mostly Highlanders, failed at their attempts to overthrow the reigning House of Hanover.

The Highlanders and their language were further tyrannised during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, where masses of Highlanders were forced to emigrate to make way for agricultural reforms of the then British government.Waves of mass emigration to North America and Australasia meant that these immigrants had to learn the lingua francas of the countries they immigrated to, i.e. English, and subtractive bilingualism occurred.

Even in the 20th century, despite the council fiercely resisting continuous attempts to allow for bilingual road signs, it was not until 1973, when this was finally allowed. However, today, many with Scottish ancestry fail to realise that they belong to a culture that has its own language and take for granted the new rights they now have to celebrate this language. It’s a bit like the generations of women who have campaigned for the right to vote, only to have lots of women, decades later, not even bothering to head to the polls on election day. We humans do have a propensity of taking things for granted, things that generations have fought to have.

Most Scots would be pleased to have organisations like Historic Scotland to look after, to preserve, and to show off their amazing irreplaceable heritage. Places like Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands are older than the Pyramids of Egypt and tell a story of the history of a people, a story of where we come from and what we were, and places like this need to be conserved and studied with care.

Yet, many do not seem to see a parallel between these places and a complex language like Gaelic, which is filled with historical clues to the beginnings of the Scots. Perhaps an organisation like Historic Scotland could be accused of being formed for the profit-making, tourist-attracting schemes of the government, more so than the use of Gaelic on road signs. But no one would ever think that. It is, after all, not difficult to see the connection between historical monuments and the history and culture of a people. It is much more difficult to see that connection between a language and one’s culture, perhaps because language infiltrates every part of our everyday life and, therefore, is much more easily overlooked.

So, no, if we don’t believe in taking a wrecking ball to Eilean Donan Castle, then let’s not let Gaelic die.

Bibliography

Ngugi, W.T. (1986) Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Schaefer, R.P. and F.O. Egbokhare (1999) ‘English and the pace of endangerment in Nigeria.’ World Englishes 18/3:381-91.

Swerdlow, J.L. (1999) ‘Global Village’, National Geographic 196/2:2-6.

For more information, see http://www.savegaelic.org/


Systemic Functional Grammar – Part 4 (The Textual Metafunction & Conclusion)

This post is the final part of a series on Systemic Functional Grammar. Read the first part for an overview of SFG. The second part examined the Interpersonal Metafunction and the third part considered the Experiential Metafunction.

In this final part of my exploration of SFG, I look at the Textual Metafunction, a part of SFG that is used in EFL teaching more than the other metafunctions, and often related to cohesion and coherence. Following that, I will briefly outline my views on the implications that SFG should be having on our teaching and conclude this four-part thread on SFG.

This post is based on research from the following books

An Introduction to Functional Grammar

The Functional Analysis of English

Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide

Aptly named ‘Clause as Message’ (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004), the textual metafunction helps organise the message within and between clauses, and is closely linked to theories of cohesion. I will only be looking at textual organisation within the clause.

Thematic Structure

The Theme is the departure point the speaker has chosen for his/her text. In English, the Theme, on which the clause depends for its orientation within the context (ibid), takes initial position in the clause. Theme^Rheme makes up the thematic structure of a clause.

Theme and Rheme

Chia bought some curry yesterday.
Theme Rheme…. 
Paul was bought some curry yesterday.
Theme Rheme…

Multiple Themes

Well, surely, Ken, grammar is your forte.
Textual Theme Interpersonal Theme Interpersonal Theme Topical Theme Rheme
Textual Adjunct Mood Adjunct Vocative Subject Finite Complement

Textual (discourse markers, conjunctives) or interpersonal (vocatives, Mood Adjuncts) Themes can combine to create multiple Themes, but it is the topical Theme, the first word carrying meaning in an experiential sense, realised by a Participant, Process or Circumstance, that is incorporated in every clause and anchors the starting point of the message (Bloor and Bloor, 2004). In an unmarked sentence, the topical Theme is the Subject of the interpersonal metafunction.

The most common marked Themes utilize adverbial groups or prepositional phrases serving as Circumstantial Adjuncts. More highly marked are Themes realized by nominal groups that are not Subjects, as seen in many informal spoken conversations e.g. ‘My reading, I’m done with it.’ Syntactical structures are highly neglected in EFL, as most grammar work focuses on tenses. Students use sentences like ‘Mario, yesterday, I gave the book to him,’ without intending to have a highly-marked Theme. It is perhaps useful to teach students basic unmarked structures, especially at lower levels.

Information structure

The Theme-and-Rheme theory was first conceived in The Prague School, where Themes were associated to the Given unit of information, and Rheme to the New (ibid). While ‘Given’ refers to the previously-mentioned, or the un-newsworthy, ‘New’ reveals new information or what is deemed newsworthy, and is often indicated by the placement of the tonic nucleus. Given+New makes up the information structure of the clause. I have chosen to use ‘+’ over ‘^’ because, for Halliday, Given units are not always thematized. In unmarked imperatives, the Theme is assumed to be ‘you’ (ibid). In marked declaratives, New could occur anywhere, especially in spoken English, where contrastive stress is shown through intonation change, e.g. ‘Derren has three brothers, not me.

Thematic and information structures occur across languages but may succumb to different rules. In Latin-based languages, the inflected nature of words allows positional flexibility, and results in interference errors such as ‘Today, happened something.’  In Japanese, Themes are signalled by the particle ‘wa’, while in Chinese, ‘ba’ is added to Complements when highlighting the Process as New (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004). However, because we cannot say ‘I the food disposed’ in English, separable phrasal verbs have evolved to allow the Process to be the New, as in ‘I threw the food away’ (ibid). Information organisation through thematic and information structure principles can enable students to construct full texts with appropriate attention to the desired details and overall message.

Implications in Teaching

SFG attempts a ‘view from above’ (ibid), and the description of how each metafunction is realised in their systems and structures is best applied to the observation of authentic language use. Authentic texts can be analysed for structures related to the three metafunctions, encouraging students to spot patterns within the needed genres, e.g. the thematic progression of discursive essays tends to follow certain patterns (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), and EAP students or those preparing for language exams like IELTS can use this framework to develop their essay-writing skills.

Besides a deeper knowledge of how language is used to create meaning, teachers can gain a better understanding of how language use has affected its evolution, how English differs in its functional lexico-grammatical structures, and how to better enable students to use these structures effectively. The slot-filling approach of SFG allows students to practise recognising the types of words/groups that fit into different parts of sentences, making the task of sentence construction more manageable. Assessment of student production also becomes less arbitrary, and instead of vague feedback like ‘be clearer,’ or ‘wrong register’, teachers can analyse students’ use of structures within the three metafunctions in comparison to well-produced texts, and precisely identify how they can improve their communicative skills (ibid).

However, the use of SFG in the classroom is not without problems. Being a descriptive grammar, its extensiveness could intimidate both teachers and students, who might prefer simpler rules that are easily applicable. Thompson (2004) admits that analysis of authentic texts could prove tiring and may not be as feasible as it is useful. The huge number of technical terms needed to describe language in SFG is another obstacle. Butt et al (2000) claims that we can narrow the selection of terms to teach students, yet argues that such metalanguage is necessary in making the finer distinctions in language, and does not suggest which metalanguage to teach. Currently, many ESP coursebooks have taken to teaching cohesion and textual organisation in the spirit of SFG, but it remains to be seen if the rest of SFG would make it into EFL syllabuses.

Conclusion

SFG offers a view where the purpose of language is to mean, and meaning could refer to our stance regarding a proposition or proposal (interpersonal), the representation of our experience or consciousness (experiential) or the relevance of its organisation in the surrounding context (textual).  Each of these different dimensions offers choices within a system, where meaning is realised in a variety of potential structures. As language continues to evolve to cater to new meanings that need representation in communication, the application of SFG to the language classroom can help teachers and students understand the overall picture and enable them to become better communicators through an understanding of how language works.

Systemic Functional Grammar (Part 3 – The Experiential Metafunction)

This is the third part of a series summarising the basic concepts of Systemic Functional Grammar. The first post was a overview of SFG, the second post looked at the Interpersonal Metafunction, this post will be looking at the Experiential Metafunction.

In my fourth and final post, I will be examining the Textual Metafunction and considering how SFG applies to our language classroom.

This post is based on research from the following books

An Introduction to Functional Grammar

The Functional Analysis of English

Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide

If the Interpersonal Metafunction showed the point of view of the speaker at the moment of speaking through the Mood element, one could say that the Residue carried the content of that message. And the content, in Hallidayan linguistics is categorised by different processes defined by the main verb of the clause. Here’s the 2nd Metafunction.

The Experiential Metafunction

Halliday (1976) originally purported that the experiential metafunction was one of the three main metafunctions. He later includes it within the ideational metafunction (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004), alongside the logical metafunction of relationships between clauses and clause-complexing. Thompson (2004), however, sees the latter as a fourth metafunction. As clause-complexing is beyond my scope, the focus will be on the experiential metafunction.

Also called Clause as Representation, the clause represents the ‘content’ of our experiences, answering the question ‘Who does what to whom’. This metafunction uses the grammatical system of transitivity. Although sharing the traditional view of transitivity that the focus is on the verb group (the Process), SFG refers to the system as describing the whole clause (Thompson, 2004) and does not use the labels ‘subject’, ‘verb’ and ‘object’, seeing that ‘verb’ is a word class, while ‘Subject’ is a functional term. Instead, different functional labels are given to Participants (realised by nominal groups), Processes (realised by verbal groups) and Circumstances (realised by prepositional phrases or adverbials signifying time, place or manner) of each process type.

Material process clauses refer to experiences of the external world and describe processes of doing and happening, answering the question ‘What did he/she do?’ or ‘What happened?’ (Butt et al, 2000). The distinction between participant types (Beneficiary, Goal, etc.) can alleviate students’ confusion as to which can be turned into a prepositional phrase and shifted to the end to be highlighted as newsworthy. Also, in the experiential metafunction, functional terms define the roles the Participants play in the Process, and Goals or Beneficiaries can take Subject position.

Material Process

Chia bought some curry yesterday.
Actor Process: material Goal circumstance
Nominal group Verbal group Nominal group Adverbial group

Material process with Beneficiary

Chia bought Paul some curry yesterday.
Actor Process: material Beneficiary Goal circumstance
Nominal group Verbal group Nominal Group Nominal group Adverbial group

Material process with Beneficiary shifted to the end

Chia bought some curry for Paul yesterday.
Actor Process: material Goal Beneficiary circumstance
Nominal group Verbal group Nominal group Nominal Group Adverbial group

Agentless passive structure with Beneficiary as Subject

Paul was        bought some curry.
Beneficiary Process: material Goal
Subject Finite Predicator Nominal group

Agentless passive structure with Goal as Subject

Some curry was         bought for Charles.
Goal Process: material Beneficiary
Subject Finite Predicator Nominal group

Relational process types serve to identify and characterize, and are further subdivided into processes of ‘being’ (intensive or circumstantial) and ‘having’ (possessive). (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004).  Attribution specifies the class the Carrier belongs to, while identification narrows the class down to one.

Relational Process of intensive attribution

Emma is pretty.
Carrier Process: Relational: intensive atrribution Attribute
Nominal group Verbal group Nominal group with adjective as Head.

Relational Process of intensive identification with Value as Subject

Emma is the prettiest.
Value Process: Relational: intensive identification Token

Relational Process of intensive identification with Token as Subject

Emma is the leader.
Token Process: Relational: intensive identification Value

In ‘Emma is the prettiest one’, ‘Emma’ is the Value identified by the Token ‘the prettiest one’, since Emma is represented by the prettiest one. However, in ‘Emma is the leader’, ‘Emma’ represents the leader and is now the ‘Token’, identified by ‘the leader’ as the Value. Because of this structural distinction, we cannot combine the two and say, ‘Emma is the prettiest one and the leader’. (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004)

Below, are more examples of attribution and identification within other types of relational processes.

Relational Process of possessive attribution

Emma has a Wii console .
Carrier Process: Relational: possessive attribution Attribute

Relational Process of possessive identification

That Wii console is Emma’s.
Token/Possessed Process: Relational: possessive identification Value/Possessor

Relational Process of circumstantial attribution

The deadline is on Tuesday.
Carrier Process: Relational: circumstantial attribution Attribute

Relational Process of circumstantial identification

Tuesday is the deadline for the blogpost.
Token Process: Relational: circumstantial identification Value

Serving to construe processes of sensing, happenings within our consciousness, mental processes are subdivided into processes of emotion, perception, cognition, and desideration (ibid).

Mental process of emotion with nominal group as Phenomenon

David liked the headphones.
Sensor Process: Mental: Emotion Phenomenon

Mental process of perception with embedded clause as Phenomenon

David saw what happened.
Sensor Process: Mental: Perception Phenomenon

Mental process of cognition with projected clause

David knew he was getting headphones for Christmas.
Sensor Process: Mental: Cognition Projected Clause

Mental process of cognition with projected clause

David hoped that he would get headphones for Christmas.
Sensor Process: Mental: Desideration Projected clause 

Notice that in mental processes of emotion and perception, what is loved or hated, seen or heard, is labelled Phenomenon, even when the fact is realised as an embedded clause. However, mental processes of cognition and desideration often bring wishes and ideas into existence by projecting a separate clause (Thompson, 2004).

Pairs such as ‘like/please’, which show a different direction in Sensor-Phenomenon relationships, are often unaccounted for in traditional grammar, but commonly occur in cognitive and emotive mental processes (ibid).

David liked the headphones.
Sensor Process: Mental: Emotive Phenomenon
The headphones pleased David
Phenomenon Process: Mental: Emotive Sensor 

In ‘David liked the headphones’, ‘David’ is the Sensor of this emotive mental process which is denoted by the verb ‘liked’. ‘The headphones’ is the Phenomenon which summarises what is thought, perceived, or liked/disliked. Contrast that with ‘The headphones pleased David’, where the Subject is now the Phenomenon, and the Sensor, which is the conscious being, fills the interpersonal slot of Complement.  The example below shows that ‘realise’ is a ‘like’ type verb, while ‘occur to’ is similar to ‘please’. (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004)

David realised the fact that he was wrong.
Sensor Process: Mental: Cognitive Phenomenon
The fact that he was wrong occurred to David.
Phenomenon Process: Mental: Cognitive Sensor

Other process types

Between material and mental are behavioural processes, while existential processes are between relational and material. Verbal processes share the ability of mental processes to project what is said or thought in a separate clause. Some indirect-speech verbs, e.g. ‘urge’, ‘force’, which take  to-infinitives when projecting,  and direct-speech verbs like ‘whispered’, ‘sneered’ can convey illocutionary force (Bloor and Bloor, 2004).

Behavioural process

Joe sang the song.
Behaver Process: Behavioural

Existential process

There was a boy.
Process: Existential Existent

Verbal process projecting direct speech as separate clause

Alan said, “You should read.”
Sayer Process: Verbal
Quoting Quoted
Actor Process: material

Verbal process projecting indirect speech as separate clause

Alan said you should read.
Sayer Process: Verbal
Reporting Reported
Actor Process: material 

Different process types have different tenses as their basic, unmarked, forms, e.g.  while the unmarked present tense for material processes is the present-in-present (the present progressive), that for relational and mental processes is the present simple. Halliday and Matthiessen (2004) criticise EFL syllabuses for over-simplifying the teaching of the present simple as habitual behaviour without considering that this largely depends on process types. Another oversimplification is the famous pedagogic rule that state verbs cannot take the progressive tense. However, many verbs like ‘have’ can be either states or actions, which can be confusing for students. SFG’s separation into different processes (‘have a shower’ is material, while ‘have a pen’ is possessive attributive), which are governed by different sets of rules, explains the phenomenon to students more clearly, e.g. the present-in-present for relational and mental processes implies a highly-marked narrowing of the present, which tends to signify temporality e.g. ‘I hate burgers but I’m loving this one!’ (ibid).

Furthermore, different genres have the tendency of using certain process types more than others. A written recipe contains material processes, while a chef on a cooking programme might use a combination of material and relational processes (Thompson, 2004). Existential processes are often used in narratives to introduce new characters or scenes. A good understanding of the corresponding grammatical features of processes can help students use them in expressing their experiences of the world in the appropriate register, and define the syllabuses for students learning English for Specific Purposes (ESP) or Academic Purposes (EAP).

(Bibliography in Part 1)

Making Student-Centred Dogme Student-Friendly

So it seems that some students have been complaining about their teachers not using the assigned coursebook and  the discussion about whether the use of the coursebook should be encouraged/enforced has yet again risen.

With the Dogme approach to language teaching becoming more widely accepted in the TEFL world in the recent years, I had assumed that the debate was more or less over. That it was clear as day that a materials-light classroom where the use of students as the main resource was almost a given. I have taken for granted the fact that everyone knew that when done correctly, such lessons are rather taxing on the multi-tasking Dogme Practitioner, and that the benefits to their language learning process were for all to see.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been a Dogmetician teaching without a coursebook for over 3 years. Perhaps it’s because Thornbury and Meddings have given the approach an official label and wrote an award-winning book alongside countless journal articles and blogs with solid theoretical backup of the approach. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to see Dogme not as an approach or methodology, but simply as improvised but principled eclecticism and good teaching. But all teachers apply Dogme in very different ways. After all, it is what a teacher has in their ‘bag of tricks’ and how principled their version of improvised eclecticism is.

I have always enjoyed analysing language, and been rather systematic in the way I clarify grammar, lexis or pronunciation, and perhaps this comes through in the way I conduct my Dogme classes. I have also invariably learnt my foreign languages in the same fashion. Whether it be Japanese or Italian, coming in contact with the language through authentic texts and real life communication (whether it be Japanese pop songs or arguments with in Italian with my ex) had been what motivated me to put the systems I’d learnt to use. Our own learning experiences undoubtedly influence how we see the language learning process. And most of our students have been students of language classrooms prior to our encounters with them. They, therefore, have certain expectations of what their classes should entail. And one of these expectations might very well be a structured journey through a coursebook.

But we know language learning is by no means linear, and that learners remember and use so much more of the language when they themselves have noticed the gap in their knowledge and have seen their need for it. Students clearly prefer communicating about themselves, their classmates and their teacher than doing predictions and receptive skills tasks about the faceless Johns and Janes in a coursebook. When I did my action research project on Dogme several years ago, students surveyed quite unanimously claimed that the Dogme lessons were much more motivating and effective. So how is it that we have students complaining about the coursebook-light classrooms at school?

Could it be that they find the lack of structure daunting? Could it be that they feel they are not learning anything in class? Could it be that skills work have dominated these lessons and that students are unable to recognise this as language learning when little grammar is involved? How is it that the clients of executive business classes who have never been prescribed a coursebook are not voicing the same complaints?

I hope I’m not preaching to the converted but here are some things that I do to try and address the above issues:

1. Needs Analysis

This is crucial in a classroom where a coursebook is not going to be followed. A detailed needs analysis needs to be carried out on Day One, and the interests of the students, their language needs and expectations need to be identified. I make sure I ask the following questions at the beginning of every course, and allow time for students to discuss them in pairs/groups:

  • How long have you been here? How long will you stay?
  • Why are you learning English? Why did you decide to come to this city/school?
  • Who will you be speaking English to in the future? In what kind of situations?
  • Do you find it more difficult to speak or to understand?
  • Do you use English outside the classroom? When and who with? How do you feel when using English in these circumstances? Do you read the news or watch English TV programmes?
  • Which skills would you like to work on? Speaking? Reading? Writing? Listening?
  • Which systems do you think you need to work on? Grammar? Lexis? Pronunciation? Why?
  • Do you find it difficult understanding native speakers? What about native speakers?
  • What did you like about your previous language classes and what didn’t you like?
  • How do you think you improve your English best? How do you try to remember and use the new lexis or grammar structures that you learn?

Because our school provides free coursebooks for General English students, when I give out these new books on Day One of a GE class, I would get students to turn to the content page and discuss the topics and language areas (grammar, functions, lexis) that they wish to cover. To add to the topics in the book, I’d put up several topics on the board e.g. Travel, Food, Current Affairs, Fashion, Health, Education, Politics & History, Technology, Music, etc. The negotiation process would then begin. Students would confer with their partners and the class would vote for the topics they would like to see in the coming weeks (each student gets five votes). This allows me to steer conversations towards the areas they are interested in, to ask more questions when these topics come up, and to be ready to use the appropriate activites/methods that I need from my teaching ‘bag of tricks’ to address their language needs. My end-of-day-one notes would often look like this.

Student Profiles

Maria – Nurse from Spain, been here for 2 months, staying for another 3.

Needs English to keep up to date with the advances in the medical field and to                     communicate with people from different countries when travelling.

Loves shopping and clubbing.

Lives and hangs out with other Spanish-speakers after class. Watches many                         English films with English subtitles.

Finds it more difficult to understand native speakers.

An organic learner who prefers to pick chunks of lexis up through frequent                            contact.

Thinks that she needs to work on her grammar because her last teacher told her                  it’s important and that she’s bad at it.

Hates activities that require her to stand up.

Yukiko – Flight attendant from Japan, been here for 1 month, staying for another 5.

Needs English for work and loves the sound of the language. etc etc…

Results of Needs Analysis and Negotiation

Systems : 1. Lexis; 2. Grammar; 3. Discourse; 4. Pronunciation.

Skills: 1. Speaking; 2. Listening; 3. Writing; 4. Reading.

Topics: Food (10 votes); Education (8 votes); Health (8 votes); Current Affairs (5 votes), etc.

Grammar Areas in Coursebook: Conditionals 2 & 3; Relative Clauses; Passive Structures; Story-telling tenses, etc.

2. Explaining why I do what I do

We do sometimes walk around with the ‘teacher-knows-best’ attitude assuming that our students will trust us no matter what approach we use. Students, however, often have a set idea as to how they learn best, and sometimes gently going through the hows and whys of the approach we’re employing (preferably backed up with a few sentences that start with ‘Scientific research into language learning has proven that…’) could not only take the mystery out of this unfamiliar way of teaching, and encourage them to see the benefits of it for their English, but resolve any false assumptions about language learning. I don’t just do this on day one but every time I employ an activity or method I haven’t done with them before e.g. progressive deletion, running dictations, TBL etc. I try to provide students with the pedagogic rationale behind it.

3. Working with emergent language and corrections.

Dogme has been accused of being ‘winging it elevated to an art form’. For it to rise above being merely a chat in the pub, it is crucial that the teacher is noticing opportunities to feed in new language, to board and extend upon the language emerging, listening for the language problems that students are having and finding the right moments to work on them to the appropriate extent.

4. Drawing attention to the language covered

In order to avoid a situation where students are unsure of what language input they have been given, I find it worth highlighting to students at the end of the class what lexical/grammatical work they have done that day (‘Look at all that grammar we’ve done today!’). Keeping a language column on the side of the board that is gradually filled out during the lesson does help, but I also get students to tell each other what they have learnt that day a la the end of a Sesame Street episode (‘Sesame Street was brought to you by the letter Z and the numbers 1 to 10’). Recalling the previous day’s lesson and carrying out recycling activities at the start of the next day also helps reaffirm this (shameless plug: my last blog on recycling in a Dogme classroom).

5. Taking notes

If students are not using the coursebook, it is all the more important to get them to keep an organised notebook. My students often have three notebooks. One for taking notes in class, a lexical notebook they keep at home where the lexis covered in class in re-organised into either an alphabetical order or by topic, and a grammar notebook which they also keep at home. The transferring of information from their class notebook to the home one helps students to remember and revise what they have learnt that day and allows them to have the time and space to raise questions about the use of that language. It is also important to make sure students are given time in class to write down what you have boarded and clarified.

6. Controlled-practice exercises

Coursebook-less classrooms don’t equate fluency-focussed classrooms. There can be accuracy work done too. This could take the form of pairwork e.g. Teaching an elementary level ‘there is/are…some’, ‘there isn’t/aren’t…any’: Tell your partner about the shops near where you live’; Teaching a mid-int class past modals of obligation: ‘Tell your partner about the rules you had when you were at school’; Teaching an upp-int relative clauses: ‘Bring a photo of your friends and family tomorrow and tell your partner about the people in the photo’.
‘But those are semi-controlled/freer practice activities!’, I hear you exclaim? I often find that controlled gap-fills, sentence transformations, matching and categorizing activities in coursebooks and grammar workbooks tend to use random de-contextualised sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic you are discussing. Making up your own enables you to exploit the context that delivered that language and helps students to focus on not just the form, but the meaning and use as well.

Having said that, I recognise that with some grammar structures, it is quite difficult to keep all the practice within context (which is probably why the books too find it hard to produce contextualised controlled practice). In such cases, using the students’ names and their real experiences or making a friendly joke about the students in the exercises often help memory and retention. e.g. teaching Vanessa, who is a journalist and loves celebrity gossip, relative clauses, I wrote the following sentence transformation exercise on the board: ‘Vanessa wrote that article about Angelina Jolie. Angelina Jolie punched Vanessa during an interview’  This, of course, wasn’t true, but following Derren Brown’s maxims on memory tricks: Keep it visual and make it funny!

I remember teaching a Saudi student the structure ‘so+adj + that + clause) on the day after he had been to the dentist. Among the many sentence transformations about his classmates was one that read, ‘Ahmed looks so gorgeous with his new teeth that everyone standing beside him now looks ugly.’ Ahmed was writing the sentences on the board down in his notebook when he noticed this one and laughed, ‘I’m never going to forget this structure now!’

7. Ensuring variety

We tell trainees on the Celta in week one about different styles, and although I’m not a big fan of the VAK paradigm, the aim of that input session is to convey the message that we need to vary the activities we use in the classroom. But so many of us get lazy and start to rely on the same tricks day after day. Teachers might find their favourite boil-in-the-bag lessons much easier to execute than using a coursebook. As Chaz Pugliese said in his talk at IATEFL this year, ‘Teachers have fun! Or you might bore us!’

8. Not letting gimmicks and technology dictate

On a very different note from the last point, I have often seen teachers who spend a lot of time preparing their lessons and trying to spice things up, creating the most amazing materials using the plethora of features that the internet and IWBs offer. This is hardly materials-light to classify as a Dogme approach, but I simply felt that I needed to include something about that in this post. Arguably, one can still make lessons interesting and ensure variety by focussing on the lives of the students and the stories they have to tell us.

As much as I believe teachers should harness their creativity, the focus needs to be taken off the fancy tools of teaching and placed on the very people we are teaching. Several years ago, the British Council produced some telling results of a focus group research they conducted where students claimed that they felt that the use of IWBs and technology was taking their teachers’ attention away from them and onto the technology. The novelty of IWB gimmicks might impress students to start with, but when that starts to take centre stage, the development of our students inevitably suffers. We are not in competition to see who can create an all-singing all-dancing lesson about the present perfect continuous. We are in the business of helping students understand and use the structure. And I’m all for the most efficient way to go about doing this.

9. Giving homework 

Homework in my classes often entail students keeping their notebooks up to date, reading an article their classmates have brought in, doing some research on a topic online, preparing presentations or writing emails/blogposts/journals/essays. Depending on the needs analysis of course, including writing skills work is essential in giving students a ‘rounded experience’ of learning English. Using the controlled practice exercises in coursebooks as homework can also placate students who feel like their coursebooks are going to waste, and help them to see that the language covered in the classroom does correlate to the syllabus in the coursebook.

10. End-of-course retrospective round-up

Speaking of correlation, at the end of my courses, after rigorous rounds of recycling and revision activities, I get my students to turn to the content page of the coursebook once again, like they have done on Day One. I then get them to discuss with their partners which topics and which language areas they have covered over the month that are in the coursebook. Students are often pleasantly surprised to find that not only have they covered everything in the part of the book they were meant to cover, they have also acquired structures and language beyond that syllabus.

If students are still complaining despite all this, perhaps it’s simply due to the fact that they’ve been given a free coursebook that they haven’t got to use. The solution then is simply: Stop giving them free coursebooks and save the school some money. *wink*

Recycling Language in a Dogme Classroom

I have often have teachers asking me, ‘If language just emerges, how do you ensure learning takes place? How do you recycle the langauge?’

Many of you have read, or written blogposts on the same subject, but I thought I’d share my favourite ways of recycling language (which I’ve, of course, stolen and adapted from all the wonderful teachers and colleagues around me).

First things first, I find a retrospective record of my Dogme lessons useful in helping me keep track of what has gone on, so as to revise the language covered, and also to enable me to provide the appropriate scaffolding for subsequent lessons. To do this, I simply take a photo of my boardwork (with my mobile phone) at the end of each lesson. (The other advantage of taking photos is that when students tell you that they have no recollection of a language item being clarified, mainly because they had forgotten to take notes of it, there’s photographic evidence in your pocket!)

Here are photos of three different days of my Low-Intermediate lesson. Pardon my bad handwriting… *cringe*

(You’ll need to click on the picture to enlarge it.)

The emergent language is then transferred onto cards. Lovely coloured cards provided for by the school… On each card is either a lexical item or a structure in the form of a model sentence/phrase. These cards are brought into class every day for language recycling, and the pile grows quite rapidly, to everyone’s amazement and satisfaction.

Here’s how I use them.

1.  Recall

This is something I have adapted from an idea that originated from  my colleague, Melissa, and have done it every lesson since. (Thanks, Mel) At the start of every lesson, students tell their partners what they remember from the lesson before. It is important that the recall is not simply focussed on language, but also what was talked about, who said what, and how those emergent language items came about. This could last anything from 5 minutes to 15 minutes, and is also a great way for students who were absent to have a chance to catch up and be taught by their peers. I sometimes distribute the language cards as prompts for students to remember the contexts they arose in.

2.  The traditional and much-loved Back-to-Board

You could do this at the start of every lesson, and students seem to love it all the same. Divide the class into 2 groups, have one represetative from each group sit in front of their groupmates with their back facing the board. The teacher writes the lexical item (collocations, phrases, even sentences) and the group members have to describe and explain the language item to their representative without using the words on the board (or related words e.g. made-make, friendship-friend), without spelling any word, and without using ‘sounds-like’ clues. The first rep to shout out the answer wins a point for the group.

3.  Taboo (without the taboo words)

As the pile of cards stack up, this activity is ideal for a end-of-week revision. Again, divide the class into two groups. One representative from one group comes up and takes the stack of cards. They have 2 minutes to explain as many words as they can for their group members to guess. Rules for Back-to-Board applies. If they choose to pass a card, the opposing team will have a chance to guess when the 2 minutes is up. One point is awarded to each card guessed right.

4.  Fastest hands first

All the students sit on the floor in a circle with a ball/bottle of water/soft toy in the middle. The teacher explains the word/phrase/sentence, the fastest person to grab the ball/bottle of water/soft toy gets to answer. If they fail, their group will have one point deducted from their total score.

5.  Sabotage

All the cards are placed faced up around the floor. The teacher leaves the room (or turns away from the students and cards) Again, in groups, students will have to pick the word/phrase/sentence that they think the other group might have trouble with. The other group will then have to explain the language item to the teacher. If the teacher guesses it right, they win a point. If the teacher can’t guess it (e.g. because they’ve got the meaning wrong), the group that picked the card would have to take over the explaining. A right guess at this stage wins a point for that group. A bad explanation would mean 2 points deducted off that group’s total score.

6.  Board Rush/ Mini-Whiteboards

Ever since I’ve bought a set of mini-white boards, the traditional board rush has taken on a new meaning. The teacher explains the language item, the students have to write their answers on the board as quickly as possible (and flip them over for the rest of the class to see if you’re using mini-whiteboards). Correct answers scores a point. A great way to check for spelling errors. The teacher could always vary this by giving one part of the collocation and have the students write the other, or giving the context in which this language item occurred and have the students remember what was said/reformulated.

7.  Charades/ Win, Lose or Draw

Students pick a card and act/draw out the language item for their team to guess. You know how this works.

8.  Language Auction

Students are divided into 3 or more teams (This could also be done in pairs). Each team/pair is given a set amount of money to invest/gamble e.g. £10,000. The teacher could explain the language item, give a gapped sentence, or write up a sentence using the language item wrongly. The teams/pairs then bid to answer the question. The highest bidder wins the amount they bid if the answer is correct. If they get it wrong, that same amount is deducted from their pot.

9. Tell me a story

This could be done in pairs, or groups of 3. The groups are given a random number of cards and have to use the language item on the cards to make up a story. They write it up and the story is then posted on the wall for a gallery activity.

10. Pick it up, Take it home

At the end of each week/course, my students help me to place all the coloured cards face up on the floor. Students then walk around the classrooms in pairs discussing the different language items, explaining to each other the contexts they came up in and exchanging opinions about which ones they found easy or difficult. Students then have a chance of picking up the cards containing the language items they have trouble remembering or using, and take those home with them. I find that the physicalisation of actually picking up the cards and keeping them really helps with students’ memory of the item.

So there you have it. These are the 10 things I do on a regular basis to enable recycling to happen in my classroom. In fact, I tend to do one of the above activites on a Tuesday to revise Monday’s language, on a Wednesday to revise Monday’s and Tuesday’s language, and so on and so forth. On a Friday, I dedicate more than half of my 3 hour lesson to recycling all the language covered thus far (that week and the weeks before that)…

You probably already do some of them (if not all) yourself. But if you haven’t, do give it a try and tell me how it goes! If you have some that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to share your ideas!

Systemic Functional Grammar (Part 2 – The Interpersonal Metafunction)

In my last post, we looked at an overview of what Systemic Functional Grammar is. Halliday divides the way we use language into different metafunctions. This post will explore the Interpersonal Metafunction, and in Part 3, we shall look at the Experiential Metafunction, and in Part 4, we will be examining the Textual Metafunctions and I will also be suggesting some ideas as to how we could apply SFG to our language classrooms.

This post is based on research from the following books

An Introduction to Functional Grammar

The Functional Analysis of English

Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide

We use language to enact our personal and social relationships (the interpersonal metafunction), to construe our experience of the world and our consciousness (the experiential metafunction), and to organise discourse and create continuity and flow in
our texts (the textual metafunction) (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004).

Although the term ‘function’ was used in Halliday’s earlier work (1976) and other books on SFG (Butt et al, 2000), the term ‘metafunction’ is now preferred, to avoid potential confusion with ‘communicative functions’ in relation to Searle’s (1965) Speech Acts, and grammatical functions of words or groups (Bloor and Bloor, 2004). Each metafunction has its own systems of choices, each choice resulting in a structure. However, realisations of these 3 metafunctions occur simultaneously, allowing language to create different meanings at the same time (Eggins, 2004).

          I  must      finish      this blogpost
   Subject  Finite Predicator Complement
InterpersonalMetafunction   Mood   Residue
 ExperientialMetafunction   Actor  Process:material Goal
 Textual Metafunction   Theme                   Rheme
  Given                   …………………..  New

The Interpersonal Metafunction

Language involves interactions where we initiate or respond to the act of giving or demanding for goods-and-services or information. Thus, Halliday and Mathiessen (2004) regard this function as one of exchange. The principle grammatical system here is the MOOD network, within which is a choice between imperative and indicative. If indicative is chosen, there is a choice between declarative and interrogative. These choices are
realised by manipulating the Mood element.

1. Mood

The Mood carries the interpersonal functions of the clause and consists of Subject+Finite. The Subject is realised by a nominal group that the speaker gives responsibility to for the validity of the clause (ibid), while the Finite is realised by the first of the verbal group. The rest of the verbal group is the Predicator, which forms part of the Residue. A clause thus
consists of Mood+Residue. The Mood element can be identified in Mood tags (pedagogically, question tags).

Josh can speak English.
Subject Finite Predicator Complement
Mood Residue
Josh can speak English, can’t he?
Subject Finite Predicator Complement Finite Subject
 Mood    Residue   Mood Tag

and is also used in short answers, the Finite being the core that is bandied about in exchanges because it carries the validity of the proposition (Thompson, 2004).

Notice how the finite is used to argue the validity of the proposition in this childish exchange:

A:      You                                didn’t                           read                                my blogpost!

Subject

Finite

Predicator

Complement

    Mood    Residue

B:            Yes,                                   I                                       did.

Mood Adjunct Subject Finite
                                                Mood

A:          No,                                 you                               didn’t!

Mood Adjunct Subject Finite
                                               Mood

B:              Did!

        Finite
        Mood

A:              Didn’t!

        Finite
         Mood

 

The giving of goods-and-services is labelled an offer, usually realised by Finite^Subject signalling an interrogative, but can also be non-linguistic (I present you biscuits). A command demanding goods-and-services takes the imperative, where the Mood is non-existent, although the assumed Subject ‘you’ appears in a marked imperative (see below).  Goods-and-services are tangible commodities or activities, and responses to proposals (offers and commands) can be non-linguistic and limited to either accepting or
refusing.  Language merely facilitates the success of the exchange.

An offer realised as an interrogative

Would you like some biscuits?
Finite Subject Predicator Complement
Mood Residue

 A command realised as an unmarked imperative

    Pass the biscuit.
No Subject No Finite Predicator Complement
No Mood Residue

A command realised as a marked imperative

You,   pass the biscuit!
 Subject No Finite Predicator Complement
No Mood Residue

 A statement realised as a declarative

I           made   those biscuits.
Subject ‘past’Finite ‘make’Predicator Complement
         Mood            Residue

A question realised as an interrogative

Did you make those biscuits?
Finite Subject Predicator Complement
Mood Residue

The exchange of information involves an intangible, verbal commodity and language is the end in itself. The giving of information often takes the form of a statement, a declarative denoted by Subject^Finite. The demanding of information is expressed by a question realised by an interrogative. Statements and questions (propositions) can be argued with, denied, adjusted, etc., and the response is varied and has to be linguistic, unlike proposals. The position and existence of both Subject and Finite therefore indicates whether a clause is declarative (statement), interrogative (question, offer) or imperative (command) (see above examples with ‘biscuit’).

However, declaratives andinterrogatives could also be polite requests for goods-and-services since basic commands might be considered Face Threatening Acts, and thus highly impolite (Brown and Levinson, 1987). Modals are also often used to disguise demanding proposals or soften propositions (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), but it is important that EFL students initially learn the most straightforward grammatical realisations of the
interpersonal metafunction, before shifting towards increasing interpersonal distance through less straightforward structures (Butt et al, 2000).

In ‘I made those biscuits’, the Finite appears to be missing, but is in fact fused with the Predicator ‘make’ (made = Finite: ‘did’ + ‘Predicator: ‘make’). This could help EFL beginners understand why the so-called ‘dummy’ auxiliary ‘do/does’ magically appears in some interrogatives and negatives, while not in others that contain a separate Finite. Through the Finite, the speaker can signal the primary tense, polarity (positive or negative) and modality (the extent of validity) of the clause, seen from his/her standpoint. Teachers can help students anchor such viewpoints within the Mood.

Included in the Mood is the word ‘not’, attached to the Finite to signal negative polarity. However, according to Halliday and Matthiessen (2004), this is not always the case. Consider the two possible meanings in ‘You may not go to the party.’

If we take that sentence to mean ‘you are not allowed to go’, ‘not’ would be included as part of Mood. In the second possible meaning ‘you are allowed not to go’, ‘not’ is part of the Residue. This is a useful distinction, but interestingly, if we followed the above logic, then the ‘not’ in ‘you must not go’ ought to belong to the Residue. Halliday (ibid)
lists the above ‘not’ as part of the Finite because of the existence of the contraction ‘mustn’t’. Arguably, recognising ‘not’ as the Residue in this case might be helpful to EFL students, who are often confounded with the difference between ‘You don’t have to go’ (‘not’ in Mood, therefore ‘don’t’ negates the validity of the Residue ‘have to go’)
and ‘You mustn’t go’ (in my opinion, the Finite ‘must’ validating the Residue ‘not go’).

2.    Modality

With propositions, the positive and negative poles in the Mood assert or deny what is stated in the Residue, e.g. ‘It is,’ or ‘It isn’t’. In between these certainties are degrees of probability and usuality signalled by modalization (ibid).
Modalization is expressed through the Finite showing epistemic modality (O’Halloran, 2006) e.g. ‘It might be’, or through a Modal Adjunct like ‘It probably/usually is’. Modal adjuncts are included in the Mood, and can be categorised into

(i) Mood adjuncts, e.g. ‘probably’, which occur close to the finite,

(ii) Comment adjuncts, e.g. ‘unfortunately’, which occur at any
boundary between information units.

With proposals, the positive and negative poles prescribe or proscribe e.g. ‘Do,’ or ‘Don’t’, and modulation (ibid) happens in between, showing degrees of obligation e.g. ‘You should’ for commands, and degrees of inclination e.g. ‘I should’ for offers. We can use Finites to show deontic modality (O’Halloran, 2006), or expansions of the Predicator by passive verbs like ‘I’m supposed to’, or adjectives ‘I’m anxious to’. As the assumed Subject in proposals is ‘you’, when modulated clauses implicate a third person, e.g. ‘He should know’, the proposal becomes a proposition (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004). The distinction between proposition and proposal becomes blurred and the distinction between modalization and modulation becomes context-dependent.

Bibliography : See SFG (Part 1)


What is Systemic Functional Grammar? (Part 1)

Systemic Functional Grammar (Part 2 – The Interpersonal Metafunction)Several people I know have expressed an interest in finding out more about Systemic Functional Linguistics. Some have attempted to read Michael Halliday’s Introduction to Functional Grammar and have ‘feedbacked’ to me about it being dense and not the most accessible…So here is a summary of my research on the subject.

This post is based on research from the following books

An Introduction to Functional Grammar

The Functional Analysis of English

Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide

I’ve found it almost impossible to do this in one blog, so I’ll be dividing my summary into 5 parts. This first part is mainly an introduction into the subject, and in Part 2, I will look at the Interpersonal Metafunction, in Part 3, the Experiential Metafunction, and in Part 4, the Textual Metafunction. The final part would also contain some applications of SFG to EFL teaching (although I’ll try to pepper the next three partts with as many EFL perspectives as possible) and some of my conclusions.

I hope I will be able to do SFG some justice with my limited knowledge and research. If you are an EFG expert, feel free to correct me or add on to what I have written. If you are an EFL professional, I’d very much appreciate it if you feel free to share your thoughts on how you use or could use SFG in your teaching.

1.    What is Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG)?

Language is used to express meanings and perform various functions in different contexts and situations of our daily lives. If grammar is ‘the way in which a language is organised’ (Butt et al, 2000), SFG attempts to explain and describe the organisation of the ‘meaning-making resources’ (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004) we use to achieve such goals. Every linguistic choice we make is systematic, and the reason we say something in a certain way is the result of a choice, albeit unconscious. Such choices are made from a set of systems containing structures, allowing us unlimited ways of creating meaning (Bloor
and Bloor, 2004), while our experiences of the world, of text types and socially- and culturally-bounded situations, help build up our schemata of these systems. Van Djik’s (1977, in Brown and Yule 1983) Assumed Normality of the World could serve to explain how these experiences enable us to distinguish between different genres of texts (spoken or written) by their patterns of linguistic choices, and to notice when choices are inappropriate. SFG is, thus, a study of meaning construction through systems of lexicogrammatical choices that serve functions within social and cultural contexts.

To understand SFG, it is important to look at other theories of language and how they compare, after which I will briefly outline Halliday’s three basic metafunctions and how the systems of choices within each component are realised in the lexico-grammatical structures within clauses and how this could benefit teachers and students of English as a
Foreign Language. Due to space constraints, I will not be looking at theories on group- and clause-complexing, cohesion, grammatical metaphors, appraisals, or theories on genre and register.

2.       Views on Language and Language Acquisition

Often referred to as the father of modern linguistics, De Saussure (1916, in Coffin et al, 2004)  made a distinction between  paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations in
language, which closely corresponds to Halliday’s system and structure. The
paradigmatic phenomenon is one of choice.
For example, in my last sentence, I chose to make it declarative instead of interrogative, and positive instead of negative. The syntagmatic dimension refers to prescribed sequences in which elements (phonemes, morphemes, words, groups) are combined e.g. Subject^Finite^Predicator (^ means ‘followed by’). In SFG, this chain of elements is a result of paradigmatic choice (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), structures being realisations of systems.

Alongside paradigmatic and syntagmatic distinctions, De Saussure distinguished between two aspects of language: langue, the language system, and parole, the use of this system (ibid). Chomsky later developed this view, focusing on the language system (competence) and not the use of language (performance), and strived for a ‘Minimalist Programme’ in order to formulate a limited set of principles, i.e. transformational-generative rules, which govern the formation of an unlimited number of grammatically correct sentences (ibid). Although he does not deny that meaning in language is a social phenomenon, Chomsky regards grammar as autonomous from meaning. He further asserts that such transformative-generative capacity is ‘hard-wired’ into the human brian, thus explaining the universal phenomenon of language acquisition and the biological determination of how we use language (ibid). Chomsky was interested in a model of such mental grammars,
where the basic use of language is for thought and not communication (Thompson, 2004).

Halliday, conversely, took Malinowski’s view that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, i.e. by explaining natural adult language and language acquisition in terms of social functions, one can understand the evolutionary origins of language (Halliday, 1976). Like Malinowski and Firth, Halliday saw language acquisition as an interplay between nature and nurture (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), suggesting that the language acquisition process of a child and the linguistic structures he/she masters reflect the functions required to serve his/her life. Learning a language was thus ‘learning how to mean’ (Halliday, 1975). Unlike Chomsky, Halliday did not believe in a finite system of rules, and preferred a descriptive approach of examining sentences as being appropriate or inappropriate to the prescriptive approach of
labelling them ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ (Eggins, 2004). In the tradition of Malinowski, Whorf and Firth, he believed language is moulded by culture, and the world is seen through the language we speak (Kress, 1976). Meanings are determined by the texts’ relationship with the context of culture (genre) and the context of situation (register) (Eggins, 2004), and the study of sentences should, therefore, be inseparable from its social, cultural and
situational contexts, and not done in isolation. Hence, the use of authentic texts and corpus data has become the norm in the study of Systemic Functional Linguistics. SFG has been called an ‘extravagant’ grammar (Bloor and Bloor, 2004) as it is a huge area that attempts a multi-dimensional description of how language is organised, and its linguistic viewpoints are best seen through the main issues underlying Halliday’s three metafunctions of language.

Bibliography

Bloor, T., and M. Bloor. (2004) The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach, (2nd Edition), London: Arnold

Brown, P., and S. Levinson. (1987) Politeness: some universals in language use, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butt, D., R. Fahey, S. Feez, S. Spinks, C. Yallop. (2000) Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide, (2nd Edition), Sydney: Macquarie University.

Coffin, C. (ed.) (2006) English Grammar in Context Book 3: Getting Practical – Evaluating everyday texts (2nd Edition), Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Eggins, S. (2004) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (2nd Edition),
London, New York: Continuum.

Halliday, M. (1975) Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language, London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M. (1976) ‘The form of a functional grammar’, in Kress, G. (ed.):7-25.

Halliday, M., and C. Matthiessen. (2004) An Introduction to Functional Grammar (3rd
Edition), London: Arnold.

Kress, G. (ed.) (1976) Halliday: System and Function in Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, G. (2004) Introducting Functional Grammar (2nd Edition), London: Hodder Education