Explication Of Systemic Functional Linguistics Within The Purview Of English As A Second Language In The Digital Age

This article is published by the Zamfara International Journal of Humanities.


Sade Olagunju (PhD)
Department of English,
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences,
Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso,
E-mail: boladeolagunju@gmail.com


The paper explicates the systemic functional linguistics as a theory of language and its applicability in a second language situation. The study focuses on how systemic functional linguistics (henceforth SFL) practice by teachers and learners can improve English learning and social practice in a second language situation. SFL goes beyond being just an analytical tool and a source of providing learner with language resources. It explores the values and orientations encoded in everyday interactions to unravel some of the complexities of human language and academic discursive practices. Context is a crucial component of meaning making in SFL theory. SFL provides speakers and users with unlimited choice of ways of creating meaning which is known as linguistic choice and sees language as a set of system from which we make conscious-relevant choices. Linguistic choices are made by learners and users in a bid to employ right language forms that are contextually suitable for the intended message. For Halliday (1991, 1998), like Firth and Malinowski before him, context was a crucial component in meaning making. Halliday asked the question about why language functioned in certain ways in specific contexts. SFL is part of the wholistic approach to understanding the complexity of language through it metalanguage - language use to describe language. Hasan (2011: 338-339) states that:

A truly functional linguistics views language as a potential for meaning, and it relates the internal form of human language to the speakers' social contexts within which meaning develop in the first place. In this approach to language, the form of language is not a body of rules built into the brain, to be followed naturally and mechanically; it is a social resource for making meanings. [...] It is essentially this functional perspective that is relevant to the business of language teaching, because it can provide the most effective link between the mother tongue and the other tongue which is being learned as a second or foreign language.

Keywords: functional linguistics, context, meaning-making, linguistic choices, complexity


Systemic Functional Linguistics was developed in the 1960s by M.A.K Halliday. The theory was influenced by the works of Malinowski and J.R Firth of the Prague School in the 1920s. The linguists in the Prague School were interested not only in describing the forms of certain grammatical elements, but also how the forms function in particular contexts. Systemic Functional Linguistics (henceforth SFL) is concerned with language in use and meaning in all areas. It emphasises the idea that language is a system of options in the midst of a particular culture and context. SFL as a functionalist model focuses not only on increasing the interpreters’ understanding of the language of the texts to be interpreted, but also for relating the texts to contexts. SFL considers language as a social semiotic system.  It maps out the choices available in any language variety using its representation tool of a ‘system network’. Systemic Functional linguists view language as systems meaning potential in human interaction that are expressed by various structures. The organising concept is not structure described by rules, but system.  Halliday (1976:3) defines a system as ‘a set of things of which one must be chosen’. SFL thus accounts not only for paradigmatic relations of systems, but also for syntagmatic relations of structure and sequence.

Halliday (1978:192) notes further that:

with the notion of system we can respect language as a resource, in terms of the choices that are available, the interconnection of these choices, and the conditions affecting their access. We can then relate these choices to recognisable and significant social contexts, using socio-semiotic network… the data are the observed facts of ‘text-in- situation’: what people say in real life.


SFL is concerned with how language, spoken or written, is used to convey purposeful meaning in communicative events within specific social contexts. SFL is systemic because it regards language as ‘a network of systems, or interrelated sets of options for making meaning’ (Halliday, 1994:15). Its ‘functional’ dimension relates to its emphasis on the study of how language is used to generate specific meanings within a certain context, rather than on formulating a grammar of correct usage of the language at hand. SFL provides bridge between’ form’ and ‘function’  mapping out systematically and in detail the relationship between grammatical clauses and the functions they perform. SFL also provides direction on how the grammar has evolved in particular ways to construe various kinds of meanings.

Furthermore, Halliday and Mathiessen (2004) posit that language provides members of a discourse community with a system of choices to communicate meaning. In other words, the resources of language function as a network of interwoven systems, each of which has a choice point. Halliday (1990:34) states that SFL is particularly suitable for the type of investigation that:

…enables us to analyse any passage and relate it to its context in the discourse, and also to the general background of the text: who it is written for, which is its angle on the subject matter and so on. 

White (1998:51) following Halliday (1990) states that SFL is a social theory of language where linguistic phenomena are explained in terms of social context and rhetorical functionality.

A Review of the Previous Studies on Systemic Functional Linguistics Theory

Studies on Systemic Functional Linguistics have identified various ways by which the complexities in human language can be unravelled. Some of the studies on SFL only focused on its relationship with context and meaning making as being central to the theory. The present paper adopted the empirical review method to further explicate SFL theory and its applicability in ESL classroom and how resourceful SFL theory is in the modern age of digital technology and multimedia. The uniqueness of SFL to other theories of language is unravelled through the diachronic study of the subject from pre-digital era to the digital technology era.  Several studies have adopted the systemic functional linguistics’ model in analysing and describing linguistic data. Some of their views will be subsequently discussed.

            SFL,  according to Ansary and Babaii (2004:4),  does not only provide a detailed description of the rhetorical functions and linguistic structures of English but goes further to relate the contextual dimension of register/genre to the semantic and grammatical organisation of language itself. It also has the potential to develop detailed specifications of the staging structures and realisational features of different genres. SFL also accounts for how genres can relate to and evolve into other genres, thus providing replicable accounts of different genres in a single culture and of similar genres across cultures. Halliday and Mathiessen (2004) state that Systemic Functional Linguistics is a theory which allows the analyst to shed light on just how it is that these choices interact with social context to express meanings.

Halliday and Hassan (2006:16) state that:

SFL is conscious of the need to provide explanations of problems

faced by the learners, to try to develop some kind of coherent notion

of a language, how it works, how it was learned, and so forth, in order

simply to improve the quality of the language teaching

 Central to SFL is Halliday’s metafunctions. Having the knowledge of metafunctions launched by Halliday in the 1960s further shed light on all the concepts employed in SFL such as genre and register.  SFL offers a means of making language explicit to learners in the form of an accessible and flexible metalanguage (i.e a language for talking about language). Therefore, one of the main assumptions of SFL is that language serves three main purposes: the experiential (ideational), through which language users express their views of the world. It is concerned with construing experience; the interpersonal, through which language users establish and maintain social contact. It is concerned with enacting interpersonal relatios; and the textual, which allows for the first two to be brought together and organised in a way that is communicatively effectives. That is, it is concerned with organising ideational and interpersonal meaning as discourse. 

Halliday and Matthiessen (2004:31) point out that:

‘function’ simply means purpose or way of using language, and has no significance for the analysis of language itself. But the systemic analysis shows that functionality is intrinsic in language. That is to say, the entire architecture of language is arranged along functional lines. Language is as it is because of the functions in which it has evolved in human species. The term ‘metafunction’ was adopted to suggest that function was an integral component with the overall theory.


Halliday and Matthiessen (2004) suggest two basic functions of language in relation to human ecological and social environment: 1. making sense of our experience, and 2. acting out our social relationships. The scholars refer to the first one as the ‘ideational’ metafunction believing that language construes human experience. It names things, thus construing them into categories, and then into taxonomies, often using more names for doing so. These elements are even configured into complex grammatical patterns. The ideational metafunction deals with the process, some doing or happening, saying or sensing, being or having with its various participants and circumstances. This metafunction is distinguished into two components: the ‘experiential and the logical’. The second function of language mentioned above deals with interpersonal metafunction, stating that the clause of the grammar is also a proposition, or a proposal, whereby we inform or question, give an order or make an offer, and express our appraisal of and attitude towards whoever we are addressing and what we are talking about. Halliday and Matthiessen (2004) see this metafunction as describing ‘language as action’.

Apart from the two basic functions of language, according to Halliday and Matthiessen (2004), language has another mode of meaning, the third metafunction called ‘textual’. It relates to the construction of texts, and therefore, enables or facilitates the production of the other two metafunctions through building up sequences of discourse, organising the discursive flow and creating cohesion and continuity. SFL does not restrict itself to the level of sentence like other grammars. It goes to the level of texts. SFL interprets texts in relation to context of use. The distinctions between the three meta-functions in SFL have been made only in order to facilitate bringing each of them into unity. “As social discourse unfolds, these three functions are interwoven with each other, so that we can achieve all three social functions simultaneously” (Martin & Rose, 2003:7).

       Furthermore, it is very crucial to state that the meta-function model, the major communicative functions of language has to do with construing experience, enacting social relationships, and organising and communicating the message, respectively. The communicative functions operate at all strata corresponding to field, tenor and mode at the level of context and are realised at the lexico-grammatical stratum through systems that include transitivity, mood, and theme. The three meta-functions act simultaneously and not distinctly or independently in a text; in other words, mood (interpersonal), (transitivity), (ideational), and theme (textual) function interdependently in the language system.  Eggins (2004:84) states that:

Describing grammatical patterns of transtivity, mood, and theme allow us to look for description of the types of meaning being made in a text: how the semantics are expressed through the clause elements; and how the semantics are themselves the expression of contextual dimensions within which the text was produced .

Haratiyan (2011:10) states that grammatically, interpersonal metafunction at the clausal level enjoys mood. Mood is concerned with the information given or service rendered (giving or   demanding) and the tenor of the relationship between interactants.

Meanwhile, Eggins (1994:156), in line with Halliday and Mathiessen, identifies two essential functional constituents of the mood component of the clause: the subject and the finite, and the remainder of those parts are called residue. The subject is realised by a nominal group that the speaker gives responsibility to for the validity of the clause (Halliday and Mathiessen, 2004), while the finite is realised by the first of the verbal group. The rest of the verbal group is the predicator, which forms part of the residue. A clause thus consists of mood plus residue. The mood elements can be identified in mood tags (question tags), and is also used in short answers, the finite being the core that is bandied about in exchanges because it carries the validity of the proposition (Thompson, 2004).

The mood element constituted by the subject and the finite (auxiliary and lexical verb) and the remainder of the clause as the residue, determine the mood of the clause as verbal group. Hence, the order - subject + finite establishes the mood as declarative, while the order finite + subject establishes the mood as interrogative. In a clearer term, SFL mood system bifurcates into two,  that is, the imperative and the indicative. The indicative clauses are classified into interrogative and declarative. In a system network, a clause can be declarative or interrogative. The interrogatives are of two types: polar interrogatives-Yes/ No questions and the wh-interrogatives.

In terms of finite verb, subject and tense choice, SFL helps a speaker to express speech functions such as persuading, enticing, motivating, demanding, inviting, ordering, proposing, recommending, confirming, persisting and denying through a set of mood clause systems. The semantic dimensions of functions such as: declaration, dealing with information exchange (statement), asking information (question), and demanding service (commands) are omnipresent in every language while the structure, organisation, degree and realisation of delicate choices differ from one language to another.

            Furthermore, the residue component can also contain a number of functional elements: a predicator, one or more complements, and any number of different types of adjuncts just as the mood component contained the two constituents of subject and finite verb (Eggins 1994: 161-165). Eggins (ibid) states further that, the predicator is the lexical or context part of the verbal group while the adjuncts are the clause elements which contribute some additional (but non-essential) information to the clause. They can be identified as elements which do not have the potential to become subject, that is, they are not nominal elements, but are adverbial, or prepositional.

Gwlliams and Fountaine (2015:1 ) state that  SFL prioritises language use or function and offers a description of language that is multifunctional , including three main meta functions: experiential, interpersonal and textual. These meta-functions relate to specific strands of meaning in the clause, reflecting the requirement of language use to express experience, interpersonal relationships and text organisation respectively.

Halliday’s Systemic Functional Model has been widely adopted by discourse analysts because his classifications of different parts of clauses say something fundamental about the function, or even the purpose behind the organisation of clauses and sentences.


Notion of Texts and Systemic Functional Linguistics

SFL defines a text as ‘a social exchange of meanings’ (Halliday, 1985:11) and sees its relationship with the language system as a dynamic one.


Martin (1992:502-3) states that:

a teleological perspective on text function is set up as superordinate rather than alongside or incorporated in-field, tenor and mode. The register variables of field, tenor and mode can then be interpreted as working together to achieve a text’s goal, where goals are defined in terms of social processes at the level of genre.

 Genre is represented in SFL Generic Structure Potential (GSP), specifying the potential stages through which a text belonging to a particular genre develops. SFL is a linguistic theory with a focus on the functional relationship between language and other social aspects especially the social character of texts. SFL sees texts as the instantiation of the language system in social context. Instantiation is the process whereby many options from the language are actualised in given social context. The theory is relevant to the explanation and interpretation of text.

Halliday (1978:136-137) states that:

a text is the product of its environment and it functions in that environment (and) the process of continuous movement through the system, a process which both expresses the higher orders of meaning that constitute the ‘Social semiotic’, the meaning system of the culture, and at the same time  changes and modifies the system itself.


Following Malinowski and Firth’s views, Halliday emphasises that the meaning of a particular communication event in SFL should be grounded in the context of culture and context of situation, that is, genre and register respectively. The relationship between text and context is two-way. Context determines what is relevant to the text and text constructs the significant variables of context.

Halliday and Hassan (1985) point out that:

The context of situation, however, is only the immediate environment. There is also a broader background against which the text has to be interpreted. Its context of culture. Any actual context of situation, the particular configuration of field, tenor, and mode that has brought a text into being, is not just a random jumble of features but a totality – a package, so to speak of things that typically go together in the culture. People do these things on these occasions and attach these meanings and values to them; this is what culture is.


Halliday and Hassan  emphasise the indepensability of context of culture to context of situation. The shared knowledge of culture helps in decoding nd meaning making of text either spoken or written. In SFL approach, as Martin suggests, genre is seen as a goal-oriented social activity. The SFL approach emphasises the hierarchical relationship between language and culture and considers genre to be the representation of the context of culture, which is the most abstract in the hierarchy. In the SFL tradition, the concept of genre is used to describe the impact of the context of culture on language. By exploring the staged, step by step structure, cultures institutionalise as ways of achieving goals. Therefore, SFL has stressed the importance of the social purposes of genres, describing the rhetorical structures that have evolved to serve these purposes.

Application of Systemic Functional Theory to English as Second Language Classroom

Systemic functional linguistics is a meaning-based theory of language that sees language as the realisation of meaning in context (Halliday and Mathiessen 2014). It is a discourse analytical approach to language teaching and also a framework for implementing pedagogy in the classroom. SFL is distinctive from other linguistic theories because Halliday and other SFL theorists worked in response to issues in applied contexts .SFL as a pedagogical approach has so much to offer teachers and learners. It focuses on functional language skills and how meaning is construe through texts. The systemic functional theory describes the patterns of English in terms of three other basic concepts of units, structure and class. It is concerned with how the organisation of language is related to its use. SFL can be used in ESL classroom to provide students with adequate linguistic resources and also to gain access to mainstream academic registers. The systemic grammar is adapted to classroom use especially in its rank concept. For example, the systemic grammar uses five units to describe the patterns of English. Se

 Sentence –Clause- Phrase- Word- Morpheme

These units are to each other hierarchically, sentence is the highest while morpheme is the smallest. This concept of rank scale is useful in second language situation (Henceforth L2). In the higher levels, the clause structure analysis (S)   P   (C)   (A) enables L2 learners to capture the knowledge of the target language and its various systemic operations. Concepts like transitivity and MHQ structure are asset to L2 language learners. But this is not useful in primary level of education. It will definitely be absurd teaching the concept of transitivity to primary school pupils. Like the teacher of a native language, the teacher of  English as Second Language (ESL) needs to know something about the nature of language, something about the patterns of the particular language he is teaching, something about different varieties of that language. L2 teachers applying this to classroom teaching will present the language in a context which replicates as closely as possible the one for which the learner we determine the type and the amount of language items that will be included in the teaching-learning process at a particular time or in a particular situation.  The additional advantage which SFL description provides for L2 teaching is its applicability to other modes meaning-making. The SFL theory of modality includes an exploration of the hidden values and orientations encoded in everyday and academic discursive practices.

However, the Systemic functional linguistic theory is not without demerits. It application has some difficulties in L2 situations.  It is a complex theory matching the complexity of language. Some of the demerits are:


(i)     Its rank scale concept is counter intuitive and even inconsistent. The L1 speakers are not involved in sentence classification and ranking. Ranking is only a surface structure.

(ii)  Also, the confusion brought about in differentiating between sentences is confusing as seen in

a)      The boy who came here yesterday when I was rejoicing/because of his success is here again.

b)     He came when I was rejoicing

In these sentences, the systemic theory posits that sentence b is simple while sentence a­ is complex than the b sentence

(ii)              The systemic theory is good for sociological oriented studies like stylistics analysis and register studies. In L2 learning situation, language is ruled-governed when the systemic theory does not believe in.

According to Steiner (2018), Halliday’s SFL is an approach that created the principle that questions can be asked, and problems can arise in regard to the theoretical development in socio-cultural context.  SFL is part of the wholistic approach to language teaching and learning.  It used in ESL classroom to provides adequate linguistics resources to students and thereby enriching the teachers’ linguistic knowledge. As   Quirk stated in the preface to University Grammar of English, no one grammatical theory is capable of explaining all the language phenomena. All the theories of language have their weak points and strong points when it comes to pedagogical applications. It is expected that teachers of English language to be eclectic in their approaches to teaching most especially in the ESL classroom.

The Systemic Functional Linguistics in the Digital Technology Era

The impact of technology on the development of modern world cannot be over emphasised. The age of digital technologies and multimedia have great impacts on the linguistic resources and contexts, and meaning making process. Technology cuts across all disciplines and all human activities including education, science, mass communication, information, science, medicine, among others. The influence of computer on the 21st century is enormous and this has given rise to a new world view. The development of digital technologies allows the utilization of multiple resources in the construction of digital multimodal genres. SFL being a context driven theory, is crucial for researcher to consider context along with digital interference use in the study for example, youtube texts, youtube comments, facebook contents and comments etc. The evaluation of the type of digital context assist a great deal in revealing the communicative purposes of  (spoken or written) texts in virtual communicative context for example such as online chatting room or forum. Digitality, multimodality and innovation in language studies should be seen as interconnected developmental tools that facilitate each other. Coffin and Donahue (  2012) in their analysis of the teaching of a unit involving a video, reframing the notion of authenticity in language teaching through the SFL concepts of genre and register, thus providing for novel ways of focusing on meaning using new technologies in the primary English language classroom.

 Bateman et al, (2007:110) state that:

As communicative situations become move complex, perhaps drawing on new technological capabilities and combinations of meaning making strategies, being able to pick apart the constitutive contributors of material and what is done with that material will prove crucial.


The present research has a pedagogical implication for teachers and learners. Language is understood better when there is a strong connection between theory and practice. This work has been able to explicate the systemic functional linguistics theory as it relates to English as a Second Language teaching and learning. The merits and demerits of the theory were highlighted to further illuminate the SFL. This work has been able to establish the connection of the mentioned language theory to its practice for the purpose of clarity and how its adoption to ESL classroom and the use of digital and multimodal resources contributes greatly in giving a clearer understanding to applied linguistics theory and practice.


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