An introduction to systemic functional grammar – By Phil Chappell
— Phil Chappell (@TESOLatMQ) January 16, 2013
Phil kindly agreed to write a guest blog post on SFG. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and also that you find it useful and helpful!
An introduction to systemic functional grammar
By Phil Chappell
There is a lot of misunderstanding among the ELT community about functional grammar. I won’t go through these ideas in any detail here; the main thing I want to do in this post is to show its usefulness for language teachers, no matter what kind of program you are teaching in, no matter what level your learners are, and no matter what methodology you subscribe to. So, what is functional grammar?
Defining Functional Grammar
Put simply, Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) is a grammar based on the view that language is a system for making meaning. Systemic refers to the fact that when we use language, we make choices from sets of available options. This is contrary to the traditional view of grammar as sets of rules. Functional assumes that every time we make a choice from the available options, we are doing so in order to fulfill a communicative purpose. And Grammar simply refers to the fact that there is an overall organisation to all of these possible options.
History of SFG in Language Teaching
Now by itself, this brief explanation may not be revealing anything especially new for teachers who teach both form and function of language. Indeed, those who do may not know that these terms originated in the work of Michael Halliday, the founder of SFG, and whose work was pivotal for the early moves to Communicative Language Teaching. Michael Halliday’s work in linguistics was highly influential around the time that language teaching was starting to shift its emphasis on mastery of language structures to mastery of communicative competence. Halliday himself developed his interest in linguistics and grammar through language teaching, first by teaching Chinese to English speakers, and later on teaching English and Russian to Chinese speakers. Indeed, Halliday’s functional grammar and theory of systemic functional linguistics has been a foundation for communicative language teaching; it also underpins the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for languages.
The theory behind SFG
But it’s not all just form and function to express meanings. SFG helps teachers and their learners work with whole stretches of language in order to develop their potential to communicate in the target language. This is made possible by the linguistic theory underpinning SFG, known as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). Different cultural and social contexts lead speakers and writers to choose differently from the repertoire of language that they have at their disposal. SFG is an extremely useful tool to help teachers make sense of how language works in different social and cultural contexts, and thus be better equipped to help their learners understand these differences. This can refer to spoken or written texts (as SFG is based on the notion of text), and can range from everyday casual talk, through to a formal interview, a short email message, or an academic paper. In a nutshell, SFG helps us describe how language is used between people, which contrasts with traditional grammar that prescribes rules for using language.
Text and Context
By using systemic functional grammar (SFG), the teacher has a powerful tool with which to mediate her/his explanations of language, and thus mediate the learner’s understandings of how to use the language they are in the process of learning. This tool is the bridge between context and text – between the sociocultural setting in which the speaker is conducting her/his activity and the language that is a part of that activity. The tool is called Register, and gives the teacher the ability to pick away at the context of language use and identify:
- the field: what is going on in the activity
- the tenor: who is taking part in the activity
- the mode: the part language plays in the activity.
So, each time you present a text to your learners, you can start with establishing the context, as above, and then proceed to highlight whatever grammar is important in each of the three areas.
An integrated grammar
Looked at individually, it is possible to, for example, identify the kinds of vocabulary that is relevant to the field, the kinds of interpersonal language that is appropriate for the tenor, and the kinds of textual features (say, cohesive devices) that are going to help the spoken or written text along. The Field might be a group of friends talking about the Australian Open tennis tournament, and therefore the vocabulary is mostly related to tennis things, people and actions. The Tenor is close friends who see each other regularly and thus have a lot of common understandings. The interpersonal language will be informal, without much language of power or authority, and possibly banter and joking. The Mode is likely face to face spoken language with speakers able to give each other immediate feedback.
Taken together, SFG provides a rubric for language teachers to plan their teaching around (be they spur of the moment explanations, or whole lessons) and for language learners to sort out in their own minds where, when and how language can be used to successfully communicate across social and cultural settings.
To come: putting SFG to work in language lessons. Some practical applications.
In the meantime, see my colleague, Annabelle Lukin’s video introducing SFG.
About the author
Phil Chappell is a Lecturer in Macquarie University’s Linguistics department where he convenes the Postgraduate Certificate in TESOL. His current research interests are in dialogic approaches to classroom learning and teaching, the role of linguistics in TESOL preparation programs, and novice teacher cognition. He taught English for many years in Asia and Australia before entering the wild world of academia.