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Book: Systemic Functional Linguistics and Foreign Language Teaching

Chapter: Foreign Language Teaching and Systemic Functional Linguistic Theory

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.42807


Chapter 1 provides historical background to the emergence of systemic functional linguistic (SFL) theory with respect to foreign 1 language teaching. Michael Halliday, SFL’s initial architect, is often put forth as one of the founders of the communicative language teaching. approach, the dominant approach in modern language teaching since the early 1970s. His role in communicative language teaching can be traced from the publication of Halliday, McIntosh and Streven’s 1964 book, The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching, which set out to describe how language, exemplified through English, “works” (Halliday et al., 1964: x), and it has been described “as a kind of applied linguistics manifesto” (Widdowson, 2009: 194). At the time of Halliday’s theorizing about language, the notion of individual linguistic competence was made especially prevalent through Chomsky’s mentalist theory, which language teaching looked to as a response to the behaviourist view of language development, prevalent in the language teaching materials of the time. However, Chomsky’s theory was never designed for language teaching; rather it was designed to explain how individuals acquire the linguistic system based on the make-up of the human brain. Also at that time, Dell Hymes countered with the notion of communicative competence, which goes beyond linguistic competence in that “[t]here are rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless” (Hymes, 1972: 278). Halliday’s theorizing about language was viewed as a way of providing for the gap between rules of grammar and rules of use; i.e. Halliday’s theory of grammar, conceived through his desire to know what could be said in a given context in another language (Halliday & Hasan, 2006), was initially seen as providing a fruitful focus on functions of language for language teaching (Green, 2012). However, the chapter moves to explaining the small effect that SFL theory, especially the systemic part, has had on foreign language teaching beyond some very specific applications. That is, language teaching took up the notion of context and of functions, including a misapplication of Halliday’s child language functions to the learning of language at any age (cf. Brown, 2006; and see Thwaite, 2019); however, the model of language as a system of paradigmatic choices across strata has been far less evident in practical applications, perhaps due to familiarity in FLT with other descriptions of language, along with the complexity of SFL-based descriptions. This introductory ends with an explanation of the layout of the rest of the book.

Chapter Contributors

  • Anne McCabe ( - book-auth-432) 'Saint Louis University'