SFL and L2 errors

In a post here I was thinking about error correction in EFL classes using ideas from Systemic Functional Linguistics. Recently, however, I’ve started also thinking about how SFL can possibly explain the nature of some of these ‘errors’ and how they relate to concepts of language and identity. I say ‘errors’ here but a lot of the time I think they are more (un)conscious choices at different strata:

1. Expression: In Japan, the English spoken with strong Japanese pronunciation (Mai~ ne~mu izu Megumi) has received a lot of comment as to correction, but not so much as to why it occurs. It is usually seen as just an L1 transference problem but I think it goes beyond merely ‘katakana pronunciation’ as it’s often called. I call it ‘hyperkana pronunciation’ – it is often much stronger than would otherwise be natural in Japanese itself. I think for beginner students, encountering the sudden change of identity (often interpreted as loss of identity) that comes with learning an unfamiliar language, pronunciation is a way of (re)asserting a sense of self in the foreign language. It, in a sense, anchors the foreign L2 in the familiar L1.

2. Content: Teaching business people one-to-one can often be a strange context – there are all sorts of power relationships between teacher-student, provider-customer, native-foreign, expert-novice, or older-younger that interact within the classroom. One way I’ve noticed that this plays out is through word choice, especially collocation. Since Nattinger & DeCarrico’s (1992) book on lexical phrases, more attention has rightfully focused on collocation and subsequently L2 collocation errors, which are often seen to result from L1 interference. For some students (I have to say, mostly older, male students) collocation, and word choice in general, errors often actually seem to be an (un)conscious choice – a way of asserting their own identity by rejecting the word-choice norms of the L2.

3. Context: I once had a student who produced the phrase “an interlocking mesh device for the purpose of catching fish” meaning ‘net’. I often wondered why he used that phrase, wildly inappropriate for the context, when he did, in fact, know the word ‘net’. I think, again, it is related to ideas of identity and trying to control, or create, that identity in the L2 classroom. The student was a quite well-respected chemical researcher and would often try to use the longest word possible regardless of the field of context. On the other hand, other students may see the context of the classroom not as a learning context but as an opportunity to show off their linguistic skill by using as many idioms as possible – a chance to assert their new L2 identity rather than control it.

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