What is Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL)?

What is Systemic Functional Linguistics? Basically, SFL views language as a social semiotic, a socially situated resource for expressing meaning within a culture. The most important consequence of this for EFL is that language here does not proceed from an underlying, universal set of rules but is a negotiated set of choices that operates on, and is in turn influenced by, a number of different levels, or stratum. Here’s an example.

In the TV show ‘Friends’, the first line from Episode 2 is:

“What you guys don’t understand is, for us, kissing is as important a part as any of it.”

Just from this line, the viewer is able to make a number of assumptions regarding the nature of the situation and the participants in it. On a global level, the conversation takes place in a coffee shop between a group of late-20-somethings. Immediately, we form ideas of what kind of conversations take place in cafes based on our own experience and whether the conversation proceeds according to these expectations. This we could call the Context of Culture. This, in turn, influences the choices made by the speakers (and our interpretation of them) at another lower level. Here, we know it is a casual conversation between close friends and we know that they are not just talking about kissing. We can know this from the Context of Situation, or register.

Below these two contexts, we can also interpret the statement grammatically. We interpret the clause in three simultaneous ways (metafunctions). Firstly, the opinion is being presented as a statement of fact – there is no doubt or hedge or question. This is the Clause as Exchange, or Interpersonal metafunction. Secondly, kissing is being presented as being of equal, not part, importance to ‘it’ and this opinion is coming from a female point of view. This is the Clause as Representation, or Ideational metafunction. And thirdly, this point of view is being contrasted with a male one but the opinion itself, kissing, is presented as the most important part of the message. This is the Clause as Message, or Textual metafunction. These three together make up the grammar of the clause.

Finally, below all this, is the level of sounding, phonology. This is largely ignored in most EFL textbooks. The concept of ‘blending’, for example, is treated in EFL as an interesting afterthought of good pronunciation but, if you listen to the piece of dialogue above, the phrase “what you guys don’t understand” and “kissing” take approximately the same time. “Kissing” and “part” are also louder. In other words, by varying the sounding of the phrase various parts of that may be highlighted as new or important information and the phonology does, in fact, contribute a vital role for meaning.

What all this means for EFL, then, is that the ‘meaning’ of this dialogue is expressed at a number of different strata and that changing something at one level affects its interpretation at another. Changing ‘guys’ to ‘you people’ would affect how we view the relationship between the speakers. Changing ‘is’ to ‘kissing can be as important’ alters the force of the message. Similarly, varying the stress to ‘kissing IS as important’ highlights the polarity. My goal within EFL classes is to enable students to see language as a system of choice to express meaning.

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About eflfunc

I'm an EFL teacher in Japan and this is a blog to record some thoughts on using Systemic Functional Linguistics in the foreign language classroom.
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