Modality – system

Modality when presented to EFL learners is often limited to items such as should, could, must, etc. but the complete system network does extend beyond this, and I try to show students how the whole system interacts first rather than the usual ‘bottom-up’ approach. Here are some examples from the BNC with the modality underlined:

  1. Erm the Englishman always likes to stick one on them and
  2. I think that’ll be the case tonight
  3. Of course, it can be difficult to estimate size of, say, an ankle
  4. It is possible that future cohorts of older people will illustrate different patterns of disability.

(I love the idea of ‘cohorts of older people’.) Here we can see that only one of these, No. 3, uses traditional ‘modality’. Even this may confuse learners used to ‘can’ as ability only. Here it operates within modalization to express usuality. Together with modulation, it makes up the system of MODALITY TYPE.

Example No. 1 also expresses usuality but, unlike No. 3 which is presented more as a subjective opinion, it is presented as a kind of understood fact. From this we can see that modality can be expressed both subjectively and objectively. Both No. 1 and No. 3 are presented as being somehow implicitly ‘understood’, yet it is also possible to make this explicit by employing grammatical metaphor, as in No. 2. Rather than ‘That’ll certainly be the case’ we can project it with a mental clause + idea clause (I think + that’ll be the case). This is still, however, a subjective opinion. We may wish to present it objectively with a relational clause + factual Carrier as in No. 4 (It is possible + that future cohorts of older people will illustrate...). These expressions of subjective-objective and implicit-explicit together make up the system of ORIENTATION. One gap in this is that “there are no systematic forms for making the subjective orientation explicit in the case of usuality or inclination” (H & M, p.619).

We can also notice, however, that some of the examples are stronger than others. No. 1 is presented as being of high probablity while No. 3 of low probablity. No. 2 is medium. These three together give us the system of VALUE.

All of the examples above are positive. It is, of course, also possible to make them negative within a system of POLARITY. Notice, however, that there is a subtle difference between the polarity being directly on the proposition (I think that won’t be the case) or transferred to the modality (I don’t think that’ll be the case).

From all this we can now get the system network of modality:

(From H & M, p.150)


Text and EFL

A text may be seen as both a product, or an instance of language in time, and a process, an unfolding of language through time. I think there are a number of implications of this for EFL.

Firstly, if we look at the text as a product then we must also consider the function of that text in relation to the listener/reader. In other words, what is the goal of the text? Why am I speaking or writing?

Secondly, it affects how text is treated in class. What is generally ignored in EFL classes is how text is also the result of a process – a realisation of choices made at other levels of stratification. It also ignores the importance of how the text progresses, or unfolds, through time and how, through the dialogical nature of text, this unfolding is affected by the writer’s (or speaker’s) perception of the audience. It also ignores the function of the text in relation to other texts within the culture. For EFL, it is important to consider text both as a product and as a process – to “think of the text dynamically, as an ongoing process of meaning” (H & M, p524).

Thrirdly, I  think it is important to consider the EFL lesson itself as a text. That is, the lesson is affected by the participants’ perceptions of the context in which the lesson takes place and what they feel is appropriate for that context. For example, in a Japanese context a lesson constitutes a ‘public’ space. As such, many students feel that the use of silence is a perfectly valid (or at least available) strategy for dealing with the potential loss of face that a foreign language environment, especially one with a foreign teacher, can produce. The lesson as text thus needs to be negotiated over time to meet the expectations of students, the instructor, and also the institution in which it takes place. It is also, however, affected by the wider cultural context in which it takes place. At many Japanese universities and colleges, for example, EVERY student graduates and as such the students do not view the lesson as a ‘learning’ context where participation is required but instead view it as a ‘public performance’ context where the only goal is attendance. The challenge for the teacher here is to re-negotiate the lesson-as-text. (See also King, J. (2013). “Silence in the second language classrooms of Japanese universities.” Applied linguistics, 34(3), 325-343.)

One implication of this I think is that the SFL conception of genre teaching might require a slight shift. Often it is taken to mean something like ‘the teaching of genres’ where texts like narrative, or recount are explicitly taught using the genre cycle developed in Australia in the 1980’s (for an overview see Martin, J. R. (2009). “Genre and language learning: A social semiotic perspective”. Linguistics and Education, 20(1), 10-21.). That approach would be appropriate for a Second Language Learning context where learners are expected (and expecting) to become members of the target language community. For a Foreign Language Learning context, however, this may not be the case (see Ryan, S. (2009). “Self and identity in L2 motivation in Japan: The ideal L2 self and Japanese learners of English”. Motivation, language identity and the L2 self, 120-143.) . Instead, it may be more useful to see the lesson itself as the genre and evaluate learners not on how well they produce an independent ‘text’ but on how well they are able to negotiate the demands of the lesson as it unfolds through time and interact with the participants in it.