Something seems to be missing from my Applied Linguistics MSc…

16 Apr

(Hint: it’s not the linguistics)Halliday

I like to think that I’m as into linguistics and theory as much as the next geeky EFL teacher, but the last few months have seriously made me reconsider.  To start, I was super excited to begin my MSc at a well-known British university, and although I had never taken a long online course, I’ve always worked well by myself.  First module: Grammar.

Here is the ongoing conversation with my own psyche over the past few months as I tried to justify and wrap my mind around what I was doing:

Grammar to start?

So far, so good – I know my grammar. 

Wait, Systemic Functional Grammar is something completely different? 

No problem, a new perspective for looking at language – this will be great.

Ok, so this seems like a ton of new terminology, differing between authors…

Shhh brain, I’m trying to figure out if this embedded clause has a mental process of cognition with a circumstance of contingency/behalf or not.

So, um… how exactly is this going to help your teaching?

Well, greater awareness…mumblemumble…different perspectives…tell you later

Great, we’ve completed half the course!  I wonder what other grammatical perspectives we’re going to see!

Yeah, forgot to tell you, SFG is the only grammar we’re looking at.  Noam who?

Yes, final paper completed!  5000 word commentary, another 4000 words in analyses.  Time to reflect on how this is applicable to my future career.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you…

Shut up brain, I’m writing a blog post about it.

To be fair, this was only the first of several modules, so the ‘applied’ in my applied linguistics may well come later.  And I do realize that teaching/teacher training is only one of the many fields in which the knowledge can be applied.  In fact, this is one of the reasons I chose not to do an MA TESOL, as I do like theory and am interested in seeing applications of linguistics and other possible career avenues.

So, if anyone could help me out by explaining how my new-found SFG knowledge can be applied in the real world, it would honestly be much appreciated.

Next up: lexis.


18 Responses to “Something seems to be missing from my Applied Linguistics MSc…”

  1. eflnotes April 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    hi how about this

    • Ben Naismith April 16, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

      Thanks for the link Mura. I’ll take a look at the rest tonight, but I like the intro and the suggestion that SFG can be used to help with reading in terms of chunking. Need to sit and have a think about how to do this.

  2. Carol Goodey April 16, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    It’s been a long time since I studied systemic functional linguistics and I did so before I even considered moving into English Language Teaching. I do remember it being very difficult to get my head around but ultimately, I think, worth the effort so that when I did start finding out about language learning, I was more aware of language use – how it is actually used, by different people, in different contexts, for different purposes.

    So, when you tell yourself above that your study of SFG is going to help your teaching by giving you ‘greater awareness’, I’d agree with you. Rather than see it as the only one of many perspectives on grammar that you’re going to learning about in the course, however, I’d be inclined to see it as a way of analysing and understanding how language works and how it is used effectively and in particular contexts, so that this knowledge can be passed on to students.

    Our understanding of how texts are organised, cohesion, ideas of placing given and new information, the use of nominalisation of processes in scientific writing, etc come from the application of systemic functional linguistics.

    But, as I said, it’s been a while. Having read your post this morning, I’ve taken one of my books down off the shelf and will be brushing up on my understanding, because I do think it’s very useful. Thank you!

    • Ben Naismith April 16, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply Carol.

      I really like what you said regarding being aware of how language is used by different people, in different contexts, etc. Perhaps my problem isn’t with SFG itself (which I do find interesting), but with the abstract nature of the course/reading I’m doing which doesn’t do much to tie the theory to the differences between real speakers, contexts, etc.

      Which book are you brushing up with?

      • Carol Goodey April 16, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

        The book I’ve found is:
        Bloor, T. & Bloor M. (1995). The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach. London: Arnold.

        There seems to be later editions of this, though.

        There’s also a useful chapter by Michael Halliday “Language as Social Semiotic” in Language and Literacy in Social Practice put out by the Open University in 1993 and edited by Janet Maybin.

        These are both introductory and accessible and, yes, do seem to highlight the use of language, by real people, in actual situations.

        I do remember that it was an even smaller, even more introductory book that helped make things click for me. That one was a library book so I don’t have it anymore…I seem to remember it was a reddish/orange colour though 😉

      • Ben Naismith April 16, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

        Yeah, I have a couple of chapters of the Bloor book but really need to get the whole thing – very readable compared to some others.

  3. Sophia April 17, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    Hi Ben
    Completely sympathise with that inner dialogue you’ve been having, I’ve been having the same for the past 8 years! Fairly happy to be finished now 🙂 I often found it a bit depressing how far some of the theory seemed from the actual classroom and practising teacher. But I guess this is what you sign up for with a masters – a chance to learn about the theory and research that really underpins what we do everyday. SFG at least is rooted in real life, authentic texts and sociocultural purpose – imagine what it would be like studying “pure” Chomskyian linguistics where the real world, real people and real errors aren’t allowed to interfere in the internal working of language!! I remember doing a module on SFG and complaining that Halliday was such a man to want to label every tiny thing within an inch of its life – but I did get quite into it in the end! I felt more confident in understanding how language is structured beyond the individual sentence – we usually teach grammar at a sentence level, but in SFG this is just part of the whole, it’s rather the grammar of language at work, if you know what I mean – the grammar of a text not just a sentence, the hidden structures and patterns. We probably don’t expose learners to this enough but it is essential to be able to manipulate language according to purpose, audience, context…as you know! You are probably using an SFG approach is many lessons already. You might have a look at Phil Chappell’s recent post on the #AusELT blog about the relevance of SFG and he has promised some practical applications soon! I second Carol’s recommendation of the Bloor & Bloor book – excellent. I also found ‘Using functional grammar: an explorer’s guide’ by Butt et al. (which is reddish!) really clear and user-friendly and full of textual examples that you can actually apply in the classroom. I’ve used them to teach different written genres (narrative, argument essays etc), for instance and I wouldn’t do it any other way. Good luck with this and the rest of your masters – don’t let the theory get you down 🙂

  4. Ben Naismith April 17, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    Thanks for taking the time to respond Sofia. I’m glad I’m not the only one here who has suffered Hallidayan terminology overload. I’ll definitely be checking out Phil’s post and practical applications are exactly what I’m after. I can see too how a stripped down version of SFG could be helpful for genre-based lessons.


  5. geoffjordan May 7, 2013 at 3:52 am #

    Hi Ben,

    SFG is, IMHO, one of the most difficult bits of any postgrad. course in applied linguistics. It’s interesting that yours is an M.Sc.. course (most, as you know, are M.A.s) so I wonder why they’re putting any great emphasis on this stuff. I myself skipped, well dragged, myself through it as fast as I could because I just didn’t see its value, and, frankly, despite the well-considered comments of Carol and Sophia, I still don’t. Halliday made an almost obsessive attempt to steer grammar away from syntax towards a more sociolinguistic approach, and I think he made a dog’s dinner of the whole thing. His insistence on the naming of parts strikes me as Victorian, and I think new work on discourse analysis, genre, and everything Halliday touched, demonstrates that SFG is outdated and that today there are much better ways to tackle most of the problems he wrestled with.

    I agree with Carol that Bloor and Bloor is the best text, but it’s hardly poolside reading – how could it be! There’s a website devoted to SFG, and in there there’s a short article by Carol Chapelle that I found useful.

    My advice to you is to jump thru the hoop as nimbly as you can, leave it behind you, and get your teeth into lexis – now that IS interesting!

    Good luck, anyway

    • Ben Naismith May 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

      Thanks Geoff for stopping by and it’s interesting to hear from someone on the other side of the fence! After all this, I think I probably fall somewhere in the middle. I am interested in how meaning is constructed and different approaches to analysis, but lose steam a bit when I get into the details and naming avalanche, and I start to lose any sense of how to apply the knowledge to ELT.

      Looking forward to lexis as the lexical approach has been hugely influential on my teaching over the years.

  6. Leo July 2, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    Sorry to hear about your SFG troubles. I once tried reading Halliday but put it down so I am with you there on the terminology overload.
    Chia blogs a lot about SFG. Have you checked out her posts?

    • EBEFL July 2, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

      I with Leo here. I had to read SLF for my abortive first MA and it seemed overly complex and pretty pointless. I don’t know enough about it to make an informed judgement but I’ve managed to learn a language without it and I’m very very wary of anything with tons of complex terminology (yes NLP I’m looking at you). Still, my mind is open so perhaps someone can educate me?

      As to when your degree will help you, well in my case it made me challenge and think about everything we accept in teaching as ‘good practice’ and that’s invaluable.

      • Ben Naismith July 2, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

        Agreed – the best part of the degree has been the reevaluation of my current beliefs. Concerning terminology, I don’t have a problem with it if it seems to be naming something tangible that had been lacking a name. At times SFG seems to have arbitrary categories (i.e. at Halliday’s whim) and unnecessarily confusing terminology when the meanings of common words get reappropriated. I freely admit that this may just be ignorance on my part however.

    • Ben Naismith July 2, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

      Cheers Leo. I have read Chia’s blog posts and video about SFG and appreciate the enthusiasm and attempts to clarify SFG. I’d like to see the whole talk – will have a hunt around later.

  7. alexcase May 5, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    I’m not sure how general this is, but I’ve got the impression that everything that is substantially relevant to language teaching has been subsumed into ELT, leaving just the things that have no applications for us for “‘Applied’ Linguistics”. That’s certainly true of all the CUP books I’ve read over the last six years or so, anyway. That’s not why I quit my MA in ELT and Applied Linguistics though, so can’t claim to be an expert.

    Isn’t there only one well-known MSc in ELT/ Applied Linguistics, therefore giving away a bit more than you might have wanted to in your post??

    • Ben Naismith May 5, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for stopping by – I’m a big fan of your blog and have added quite a few of your activities to our teaching resources.

      I should probably add that after making it through the SFG module, I did pick up a lot of useful knowledge in the modules on lexis and then discourse analysis, so my outlook did brighten a bit. Haven’t had much time lately to keep going, but will try again this summer. Even in terms of SFG, comments from teachers I respect have convinced me of it’s usefulness in Academic English, so I’m not quite as put off as before (although still pretty ambivalent).

      I didn’t know there was only one well-known MSc in the field, but I’m quite happy to admit the school, so I suppose it doesn’t matter – I’d be highly surprised if any of my professors were reading this!

      • alexcase May 14, 2014 at 5:00 am #

        Hi Ben

        Sounds more positive – although again I’d argue that you’d generally find more useful stuff (and quite frankly more than enough stuff) in ELT books on lexis and discourse analysis than you would in ones marked “Applied Linguistics”

        Thanks for the nice words – nice to know somebody is reading and using the materials!


  1. Making Grammar Relevant to Teaching with Chomsky and Halliday | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections - April 18, 2013

    […] it. Recently, GFOTB (good friend of the blog) Ben Naismith wrote about his MA course. The post is here. Ben wondered about how his new-found knowledge of Systemic Functional Grammar could be of use in […]

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