The compositional structure of language (the stratification of Content and Expression) comprises a small number of “compositional layers…organised by the relationship of ‘is a part of'” (H & M, p.20). This ordering is termed rank. The rank scale for the grammar of English is:

  • clause (little miss muffet sat on a tuffet + eating her curds and whey);
  • phrase or group (eating + her curds and whey);
  • word (eating + her + curds + whey);
  • morpheme (eat + ing).

Thus “each rank consists of one or more units of the rank next below…units of every rank may form complexes…there is the potential for rank shift…[and] it is possible for one unit to be enclosed within another” (H & M, p.10).

Within my own EFL classes I try to introduce the concept of rank for even very low level classes as it is a fundamental concept of understanding the system as a whole and why certain choices are made within the lexico-grammar. As an example, a common exercise for beginner classes is to introduce basic personal information:

  • This is Jane. She is 42 years old. She lives in Tokyo. She is a doctor.

By this, we are construing the information as four separate units of information of equal importance linked textually through reference (Jane – she – she – she). Whe can, however, construe it as two units of information by rank-shifting to form two sentences with two clause complexes:

  • This is Jane who is 42 years old. She is a doctor living in Tokyo.

We could then take this further and construe it as one unit of information with three clauses by rank-shifting to form noun groups (note the change from 42 years old as a separate Participant to 42-year old as a rank-shifted Qualifier):

  • This is Jane who is a 42-year old doctor living in Tokyo.

In this case there are three clauses that are being modified (This is – Jane who – doctor living). We could, however, additionally construe the information as one unit with only two Particpants (an Identified and an Identifier) by rank-shifting who is a doctor and living in Tokyo from clause level down to noun group level:

  • Jane is a 42-year old doctor in Tokyo.

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.