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

The Best Laid Plans…

I don’t like covering other people’s classes.

Well, who does? You arrive at work and are informed that you’ve got a class to cover. You are presented with a lesson plan that you’re supposed to teach and you walk into a room with 10 pairs of eyes staring at you wondering where their teacher is. You know nothing about them, and there just isn’t time to get to know them.

I often have full intentions to follow the plan I have been given and teach what I am supposed to. But once I get into class, my instincts seem to take over and unplugging takes place. Today wasn’t so different.

The lesson plan I was given this morning was clearly meticulously prepared. A reading text had been careful copied and cut into neat pieces, ready for a jigsaw reading, and a detailed procedure was written out for me. I started to feel guilty and decided to that I should follow the plan this time.

But the students were just too interesting…damn it!

The conversation started with me asking the Pre-Advanced students what they did for a living and one of the ladies was trying to explain the fact that she owned furniture shops selling furniture that was specially aged to create an antique look that was fast becoming popular in her country. We talked about the ultra-modern, minimalistic designs so characteristic of single male households and the collocation ‘bachelor pad’ came up. One of the students mentioned ‘Bachelor’s Party’ and more lexis about bachelors went up on the board. A student wanted to know the opposite of bachelor and another student volunteered the word ‘Spinster’. I quickly clarified that ‘spinster’ had a very negative connotation, and the conversation soon became about the sexism inherent in our language.

I boarded the words ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’ and asked for the different meanings and connotations they had, and then we looked at the words ‘Mr’ versus ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and the more modern and politically correct ‘Ms’ and the reasons why these terms were considered inappropriate by some and why they were used in the past.  We started to think about the names of jobs ending with ‘man’ and found their politically correct substitutes, and decided that the words ‘doctor’  and ‘nurse’ didn’t need any changes as it was already de-gendered.

This led a student talking about the experiences he had with a male nurse and the conversation moved towards injections and vaccinations. When a student struggled to express that she had had an operation on her knee, the following sentences went up on the board:

I have had an operation on my knee.

I have had my knee operated on.

A doctor operated on my knee.

My knee was operated on several years ago.

We looked at the causative structure in the second sentence and students were reminded of the meaning and form before being given some quick practice. We then examined the rest of the sentence and I thought it was a good time to bring up the Textual Metafunction of Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar. The departure point (i.e. the subject) of each sentence was identified and we look at which parts of the sentences were Given and New, forming likely questions that preceeded each statement. We then started to look at separable phrasal verbs and why we would never put the pronoun ‘it’ at the end of a sentence like ‘I switched it off’ (because ‘it’ is a given piece of information and not new).

A student then asked about placing the stress in a marked position and we started looking at Contrastive Stress and how we can give information a ‘new’ position in a sentence by placing a marked intonation stress on the word. This led to us practicing intonation changes in sentences and then chunking longer sentences and playing around with prominence.

At this point, I started to feel bad about those nicely cut-up texts that were sitting in a corner and decided to use them for a chunking activity. Instead of a plain jigsaw reading, students had to read the short passages to their partners with the appropriate intonation changes while their partners took notes. The catch is they weren’t allowed to write words in their notes. They were only allowed to draw. Using their drawings, the students were then re-paired with different partners and had to re-tell what they had heard using only their drawings to help them remember.

Time was running out at this point and I had to leave the students at that point…

But I felt a bit more at peace with my guilt this time having used part of the plan given to me, albeit only a small part of it…

So who says cut-up cards were only for Tommy and Tina TEFLS and can’t be used in a Dogme class?