Key SFL Terms

These pages are an index to posts regarding Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). Here, you’ll find my readings of the main terms in SFL and how they relate to teaching English as a Foreign Language from my own experience of trying to apply it.

So what is SFL? As an example, here is the first scene from the TV show ‘Friends’, Season 1, Episode 2. The episode opens with six late 20-somethings chatting in a cafe and the viewer is able to make a number of assumptions regarding the nature of the situation and the participants in it. We know we are watching a sitcom and we have certain expectations regarding this form of entertainment as well as what kind of conversations take place in cafes based on our own experience and we make judgments as to whether the conversation proceeds according to these expectations. This we could call the Context of Culture.

We can also see that it is a casual conversation between close friends. We can see from their body language that they are relaxed and informal around each other but also that they are somewhat fashionably dressed and seem to present some ideal of New York living. These impressions of the people and what they are doing we could call the Context of Situation.

The scene opens seemingly half-way through a conversation:

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

We interpret this statement 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, expressed grammatically through the Interpersonal metafunction. Secondly, an action, ‘kissing’, is being presented as something that can be talked about, the kissing is also 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, expressed through the 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, expressed through the Textual metafunction. These three together make up the grammar of the clause.

Finally, below all this, is the level of sounding, Expression. 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. There is a long pause between ” for us” and “kissing”. “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, then, is that the total ‘meaning’ of this scene can only be expressed through a system of choices made at a number of different strata simultaneously and that there is a rank scale to grammatical choices that can be made. This can be represented as:

SFL Strata

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. Language then becomes not a set of rules or any universal parameters but is instead a system of choices embedded within certain cultures of language users.

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2 thoughts on “Key SFL Terms

  1. Dear Dr. Leong,
    Thank you very much for the diagrams. They are in nice printable pages. I’ve printed some to use in my SFL class. I have also read your critique of T & R. I will try to catch up with more of your recent work. Highly insightful.
    Sridevi

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