A Brief Introduction to Halliday's Theory of Language

The following extract is taken from PETAA book Teaching with Intent: Scaffolding Academic Language with Marginalised Studentswritten by Dr Bronwyn Parkin and Dr Helen Harper.

You might think that language is just a way of naming the thoughts that go on in our head. Halliday's theory of language argues that language doesn't just mimic meaning, it creates meaning. 

Imagine a number of families standing together looking at Venus, the evening star. Listen to what they're saying. One mother with a young child is reciting, 'Starlight, star bright, first star I've seen tonight. Wish I may, wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.' A Yolngu Elder from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory is there. She tells her children the story of Barnambirr, a creator-spirit who is now the star Venus, and how she led the first humans to Australia. The astronomer is explaining to her children, 'Well, that's not actually a star. It's the planet Venus, part of our solar system, like the Earth, and the second planet from the sun. It rotates in the opposite direction to most planets'.

The point here is that all those children are looking at the same object in the sky; yet for each of them, experience is being construed in different ways. They are being guided by their parents towards distinctly different perceptions, and will each take away different meaning from that same physical context. Each text spoken by a parent is a cultural artefact. The chosen texts, and the language within those texts, is the way they share their world view, their motivations, their values and social goals.

Halliday's systemic functional linguistics understands texts as pieces of communication constructed for social purposes. When we listen to, read or view a text, and when we speak, write or create a text, we are drawing on three systems of culturally constructed meaning from which we simultaneously make our choices. The first is the topic, what the social group regards as important to talk and write about (called the field); the second is the interpersonal, the words we choose that position us as authoritative or kind or fearful, and that position the audience as colleagues or novices or enemies (called the tenor); and the third are the language choices that make our text sound formal and written-like, or informal and spoken-like (called the mode).

The Australian Curriculum: English uses systemic functional linguistics to frame our teaching of language and literacy through literature; that is, whole texts. The Literacy capability, one of the general capabilities that spans all other learning areas (ACARA, 2013), uses the concepts of text knowledge, grammar knowledge, word knowledge and visual knowledge as a framework for systematically teaching about the system of language specific to each learning area. These resources represent important aspects of field, tenor and mode for valued texts in each learning area. The framework gives teachers the opportunity to teach about texts and language in a systematic and integrated way in each learning area.