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Systemic functional grammar:... 211
P e d r o H e n r i q u e L i m a P r a x e d e s F i l h o
Universidade Estadual do Ceará, Brazil
Very few longitudinal studies have been conducted on classroom Second
Language Development, aiming at revealing the lexicogrammatical
characteristics of the simplification-complexification continuum of the
different L2 interlanguage stages in an instructed setting. The objective of
this study is to investigate the level of lexicogrammatical complexification
of the Portuguese-English interlanguage of advanced learners. It is intended
as a pilot cross-sectional study to verify the suitability of systemic functional
grammar (SFG) as a data categorization framework. Ten English-as-a-
Foreign-Language students from two universities in the state of Ceará,
Brazil, were the subjects who provided the data: spoken and written
narratives. Based on SFG, the narratives were segmented into ranking
clauses and analyzed for the configurational functions that realize the
systems of transitivity and mood. The narratives would be considered to
bear a high level of complexification if they had more than 80% of complete
clauses in terms of transitivity and mood configurational functions. The
hypothesis that the spoken and written narratives would have a high level
of complexification separately (87.61% and 94.14%) and together (90.72%)
Ilha do Desterro Florianópolis nº 46 p.211-252 jan./jun. 2004

212 Pedro Henrique Lima Praxedes Filho
was confirmed, and so was the hypothesis that the written narratives
would present an even higher level. Although SFG proved to be suitable
for the investigation of lexicogrammatical complexification at the advanced
level, it is recommended that other cross-sectional studies be carried out
with learners at beginning and intermediate levels.
Keywords: Systemic functional grammar; interlanguage; lexicogrammatical
complexification; narratives.
1. Introduction
This study deals with the lexicogrammatical complexification of
the interlanguage (IL) elicited from Brazilian students of English-as-a-
Foreign-Language/EFL, within the register of spoken and written
impromptu narratives about a remarkable personal experience. The
adopted concept of IL is that proposed by Selinker (1974, 1992) and
later updated by Ellis (1994, 1997) and Moita Lopes (1996). Within the
domain of IL theory, what is here meant by lexicogrammatical
complexification is the production of ranking clauses in the subjects’
spoken and written narratives, which have all the lexicogrammatical
structural slots filled in by the configurational functions that realize the
systems of transitivity and mood as proposed by Halliday (1994). On
the other hand, simplification or incompleteness refers to the occurrence
of ranking clauses whose configurational functions, for the same two
systems, are not all present simultaneously.
The general objective of the study is, hence, to investigate the
level of lexicogrammatical complexification of the Portuguese-English
IL produced by advanced EFL students who were taking up the Letras
undergraduate program at Universidade Estadual do Ceará - UECE
and Universidade Federal do Ceará - UFC. In order to achieve the
general objective, two specific ones were set: to identify the
lexicogrammatical complexification level of the subjects’ spoken and
written narratives (low, moderate, or high?); and to find out whether
there is any difference as for the level of lexicogrammatical
complexification between the subjects’ spoken and written narratives.

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The specific objectives generated the following working
hypotheses: 1) since the subjects are advanced EFL learners, their spoken
and written narratives (both separately and together) bear a high level
of lexicogrammatical complexification; 2) since the writer has more
time than the speaker to elaborate on her/his discoursal production,
the subjects’ written narratives will bear an even higher level of
lexicogrammatical complexification than their spoken ones.
The relevance of this piece of investigation lies in the fact that it is
being considered as a small scale pilot-study through which I will be
able to evaluate whether the Hallidayan systemic functional approach
to grammar is adequate for data categorization aimed at shedding light
on a longitudinal investigation into the lexicogrammatical
simplification-complexification continuum of a given IL. The need for
such an evaluation is justified by Perrett’s (2000, p. 107) statement that
“there is not, as yet, an SFL [Systemic Functional Linguistics] account
of how second language development occurs”.2
This pilot-study is ultimately relevant as it provides evidence to
confirm or not the suitability of the analytical dimension of the
methodological aspect of future larger scale projects, inserted in the
area of classroom SLD-Second Language Development.3 Furthermore,
it must be pointed out that a piece of research as is being here reported,
regardless of its small scope, bears relevance for the teaching and
learning of EFL in Brazil. Such a claim is justified by the fact that this
type of investigation may lead to the design of more effective teaching
procedures and materials in the sense of their being more appropriate
to the students’ different IL stages, aiming at the attempt to attenuate
2. Interlanguage
IL theory was first proposed by Selinker (1974/1972), who defined
it as a distinct system from both the learner’s native language (NL/L1)
and the target language (TL/L2) s/he is trying to learn. Selinker, thus,
claims for

214 Pedro Henrique Lima Praxedes Filho
the existence of a separate linguistic system based on the
observable output which results from a learner’s attempted
production of a TL norm. This linguistic system we will call
‘interlanguage’ (IL). (Selinker, 1974, p. 35)
Another relevant component of the definition of IL as Selinker
(1992) himself puts it is “... that IL learning is best viewed as a ‘cline
progression’ from stable plateau to stable plateau (...) the learner (...)
operating with a system at each point ...” (p. 226). In order that the
progression can actually take place, the stability of each plateau is only
temporary. Ellis provides a more objective account of this aspect of IL:
The learner’s grammar is transitional. Learners change their
grammar from one time to another by adding rules, deleting
rules, and restructuring the whole system. This results in an
interlanguage continuum. That is, learners construct a
series of mental grammars or interlanguages as they
gradually increase the complexity of their L2 knowledge.
(Ellis, 1997, p. 33) (emphasis in the original text)
Selinker (1974, p. 34) postulates that, out of all the L2 learners,
only 5% of them are thoroughly successful as to be able to reach the
end-of-the-continuum stable plateau, mental grammar, or IL stage,
which is, in other words, the target language itself as it is produced and
comprehended by its native speakers. For the same theoretician, this is
caused by fossilization, a process that
underlies surface linguistic material speakers will tend to
keep in their IL productive performance, no matter what the
age of the learner or the amount of instruction he receives in
the IL. (Selinker, 1974, p. 49)
The fossilization process, in turn, is evidenced by the phenomenon
of backsliding, whereby “fossilized forms may sometimes seem to

Systemic functional grammar:... 215
disappear but are always likely to reappear in productive language
use ...” (Ellis, 1994, p. 353).
Fossilized forms are determined by the operation of
psycholinguistic processes, namely: a) language transfer (fossilization
due to L1 influence); b) transfer of training (fossilization due to certain
features found in the instruction); c) strategies of second language
learning (fossilization due to some approach to the learning of L2
material adopted by the learner); d) strategies of second language
communication (fossilization due to some approach used by the learner
when communicating with L2 native speakers); e) overgeneralization
(fossilization due to the use of an L2 rule in contexts where it is not
required) (Selinker, 1974, p. 37).
Besides the fossilization-determining processes, in a later
publication, Selinker (1992, p. 247) postulates that a learner’s set of IL
stages is subject to simplification and complexification strategies. Before
Selinker’s proposal of simplification and complexification, Ellis (1982)
had already more adequately defined these terms as they relate to the
IL continuum. Semantic and lexicogrammatical simplification of the L2
input is what makes it possible for the very first IL stable plateau or
mental grammar to emerge: “The L2 learner utilizes his knowledge of
the conceptual organization of events and simplifies their representation
in the L2 according to principles of informativeness” (Ellis, 1982, pp.
214-15). On the other hand, semantic and lexicogrammatical
complexification of the learner’s language is what allows her/him to
progress through the subsequent IL stages, by enabling her/him to
become gradually independent from the immediate reality and
progressively more dependent on a simple-complex continuum of
lexicogrammatical features in order to convey meanings that also tend
to be ever more complex.
An important contribution to the updating of IL theory was given
by Moita Lopes (1996). He demonstrates, based on empirical evidence,
that the concept of IL can be extended from the domain of one individual
to account for the language of a group of learners, provided that they
share the same L1 dialect, learning level, social experiences, and

216 Pedro Henrique Lima Praxedes Filho
motivation (Moita Lopes, 1996). Such a contribution is relevant not only
for the L2 classroom but also for the data analysis of the present study.
It is because of this theoretical advancement that the analysis for the
level of the IL lexicogrammatical complexification was able to be carried
out considering all the spoken and written narratives as one integral
whole, and that the findings could, accordingly, be attributed to all of
the subjects seen as a homogeneous group.
3. Systemic functional grammar
3.1 Metafunctions of language and their respective realizational
Halliday (1994), Halliday and Hasan (1989), and Hasan and
Perrett (1994)4 postulate that language is a multi-strata system. It
starts out in the extra-linguistic realm of the social context of situation
(register5 , with its variables of: field, tenor, and mode [cf. Figure 1])
and goes through the intra-linguistic strata of: 1) meanings (semantics
with its metafunctional components: ideational, interpersonal, and
textual); 2) forms/wordings (lexicogrammar with its metafunctional-
related systems: transitivity, mood and modality, and theme); 3)
expression6 (phonology with its units: tone-group, foot, syllable, and
phoneme; and graphology with its units: paragraph, orthographic
sentence, sub-sentence, phrase, orthographic word, and letter) [Berry,
1976, p. 83/98]).
The strata are related to one another by means of bidirectional
realization relationships, i.e., by an activation/construal type of
relationship. These relationships are mediated by the
metafunctional theoretical construct, as can be seen in Figure 1.
Briefly, its contents mean that: 1) the register variable ‘field’ of the
context of situation is realized by/activates the semantic component
‘ideational metafunction’, which, in turn, is realized by/activates
the lexicogrammatical ‘transitivity system’, whose choices are
realized by/activate a spoken or written medium of expression; 2)

Systemic functional grammar:... 217
the register variable of the context of situation ‘tenor’ is realized
by/activates the semantic component ‘interpersonal metafunction’,
which, in turn, is realized by/activates the lexicogrammatical ‘mood
and modality systems’, whose choices are realized by/activate a
spoken or written medium of expression; 3) the register variable
‘mode’ of the context of situation is realized by/activates the
semantic component ‘textual metafunction’, which, in turn, is
realized by/activates the lexicogrammatical ‘theme system’, whose
choices are realized by/activate a spoken or written medium of
expression. It is necessary to point out that the linguistic output –
the spoken or written expression channel – is a result of the
simultaneous choices made within the systems of transitivity, mood
and modality, and theme.
The following two sub-sections are dedicated to the descriptions
of the configurational realization, at clause rank7 , of the transitivity
and mood systems. The theme system will be left out as it is not relevant
to the analysis of the data.
3.2 The transitivity system and its configurational realization
At the layer of the transitivity system, the clause is analyzed for
its potential to represent both the outer and the inner worlds of human
beings, which is what the ideational metafunction does (cf. Figure 1).
The representation of reality is achieved by means of a set of
processes, along with their participants and the circumstances in which
they unfold.
Figure 1: The linguistic strata and their realization relationships. Based
on Hasan & Perrett (1994)

218 Pedro Henrique Lima Praxedes Filho

Systemic functional grammar:... 219
The functional configurational realization of the transitivity
system, in its most canonical format, is presented in Figure 2.
Participant Process (Participant)8 (Circumstance)
Adverbial Group or
Prepositional Phrase
Figure 2: Configurational realization of transitivity
An example from the data, the 22nd ranking clause of the 8th spoken
narrative (SN08), is in Figure 3:
in class
Nominal Group
Verbal Group
Nominal Group
Prepositional Phrase
Figure 3: Ranking clause analyzed for transitivity
There are six process types: material, mental (cognition, perception,
affection), relational, behavioral9 , verbal, and existential. The
participants related to each are: Material → Actor (obligatory) and Goal
(optional); Mental → Senser and Phenomenon (both are always
potentially present; either may, however, be implicit); Relational →
Attributive type: Carrier and Attribute OR Identifying type: Identifier
and Identified; Behavioral → Behaver; Verbal → Sayer, Verbiage,
Receiver, Target; Existential → Existent.
3.3 The mood system and its configurational realization
At the layer of the mood system, the clause is analyzed for its
potential to make possible the exchanges/interactions in which the
human beings get themselves involved within society, which is what
the interpersonal metafunction does (cf. Figure 1). The verbal exchanges
among the social interactants are carried out through the manipulation

220 Pedro Henrique Lima Praxedes Filho
of two clausal constituents – the Subject and the Finite, which make up
the Mood of the clause. The remaining of the clause is the Residue,
which, in turn, has these constituents: Predicator, Complement, and
The functional configurational actualization of the mood system
is shown in Figure 4.
Predicator (Complement) (Adjunct)
CLASSES THAT Nominal Temporal Lexical
or Modal Verb
Group or
Figure 4: Configurational realization of mood
The same ranking clause from the data is used to exemplify, in
Figure 5, the lexicogrammatical configuration of the mood system.
in class
Figure 5: Ranking clause analyzed for mood
3.4 Ranking and down-ranked clauses
Ranking clauses are those that relate paratactically or hypotactically
(interdependency relationships) and by expansion or projection (logico-
semantic relationships) only to same-rank grammatical units, i.e., other
clauses. Down-ranked (rankshifted, embedded) clauses, on the other
hand, are those that function as constituents or parts of constituents
within the structure of the group, which is the grammatical unit that