Aspects of Language and Learning

by M.A.K. Halliday , Jonathan J. Webster

Aspects of Language and Learning This book is based on a series of lectures which begin with a look at the history of the language that we use in order to encode our knowledge particularly our scientific knowledge i e the history of scientific English Prof M A K Halliday poses the question of how a growing child comes to master this kind of language and put it to his or her own use as a means of learning In subsequent chapters Halliday explores the relationship between language education and culture again taking the

Publisher : Springer Verlag Berlin Heidelberg

Author : M.A.K. Halliday , Jonathan J. Webster (eds.)

ISBN : 9783662478202

Year : 2016

Language: en

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The M.A.K. Halliday Library Functional Linguistics Series

M.A.K. Halliday
Edited by Jonathan J. Webster

Aspects of

The M.A.K. Halliday Library Functional
Linguistics Series
Series editors
Chenguang Chang
Guowen Huang

About the Series
The M.A.K. Halliday Library Functional Linguistics Series focuses on studies
concerning the theory and application of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL).
As a functional theory of language, SFL was initially developed by Professor
M.A.K. Halliday and his colleagues in London during the 1960s, and since then its
influence has spread all over the world.
Systemic Functional Linguistics distinguishes itself as a functional theory by the
emphasis placed on system in relation to structure. It has also been particularly
concerned with modelling language in context. The theory is especially wellknown
for the work on discourse analysis, cohesion, genre and register, appraisal and so
on, which have been taken up by scholars working in other fields.
Since Halliday’s early work on Chinese and English, systemic functional
linguists around the world have been increasing the coverage of the description of
different languages over the decades, including French, Spanish, Portuguese,
German, Danish, Finnish, Persian, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog,
Bahasa Indonesian, Gooniyandi and others.
Systemic Functional Linguistics is also characterized as an “appliable” linguistics
theory. It is well-known for its application in a variety of fields, including education,
translation studies, computational linguistics, multimodal studies, healthcare, and
scholars are exploring new areas of application.
The M.A.K. Halliday Library Functional Linguistics Series is an open series.
Monographs included in this series will cover studies on language and context,
functional grammar, semantic variation, discourse analysis, multimodality, register
and genre analysis, educational linguistics, etc. Manuscripts are selected, based on
quality and significance, in consultation with an editorial board which consists of
leading linguists in the SFL field.

More information about this series at

M.A.K. Halliday

Jonathan J. Webster

Aspects of Language
and Learning

Edited by Jonathan J. Webster


M.A.K. Halliday
The University of Sydney
Sydney, NSW

Jonathan J. Webster
City University of Hong Kong
Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR

ISSN 2198-9869
ISSN 2198-9877 (electronic)
The M.A.K. Halliday Library Functional Linguistics Series
ISBN 978-3-662-47820-2
ISBN 978-3-662-47821-9 (eBook)
DOI 10.1007/978-3-662-47821-9
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Springer Heidelberg New York Dordrecht London
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This publication is based on a series of lectures given at the National University of
Singapore in the year 1986. I was preparing them for publication at that time, but
for personal reasons, I was unable to complete the task, and they were stowed away
and, as I thought, no longer recoverable. However, it turned out that the original and
one photocopy had been preserved, the one by Jonathan Webster, who has done so
much work as editor, and as a personal friend, to make my writings accessible, and
the other by my friend and colleague David Butt, who simply decided that he was
not going to throw them away.
Then at some moment, two other friends of mine, Huang Guowen and Chang
Chenguang, co-editors of the Springer “M.A.K. Halliday Library Functional
Linguistics” Series, came to hear about these lectures and suggested that they might
be published as one of the volumes in this series. Jonathan Webster then had them
transcribed, by his assistant Peggy Tse, and had the texts checked and all the figures
I was pleased to have these lectures brought back to life, and I am extremely
grateful to all those people who made it happen. But the problem was how should I
revise them? Any extensive revision, with updating of bibliography, would have
been impossible; it would have meant writing an entirely new book (which was
what I had started to do at that time but never finished). Now, I no longer have the
energy, and in any case, I do not know anything of the more recent work that has
been done on many of the topics that I touched upon, so there was no possibility of
bringing it up to date. So I decided to leave the text just as it was, as my way of
introducing a framework of knowledge about language, and ideas about language
and learning, to an unknown audience, well versed in English, at a world-class
Asian university.
For the same considerations, I have left the text closely linked to its Singaporean
context, because that is the context for which it was conceived and in which it was
originally presented in spoken form. I had paid several working visits to Singapore
and had Singapore listeners in mind; I have not attempted to change this, or to
disguise it.




Now, almost thirty years later, it is being recontextualized, in a world with
different technology, a different socio-economic order, and different problems and
challenges. In its written form, the discourse may seem remote, perhaps somewhat
quaint. But I hope it may still be relevant, at least to someone who may be trying to
interest an informed and educated audience, not specializing in linguistics, in that
most fascinating of all areas of human activity and human knowledge—language.
May 2015

M.A.K. Halliday



Language, Learning and ‘Educational Knowledge’ . . . . . . . . . . . .



The Evolution of a Language of Science . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .



Learning to Learn Through Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .



Language and Learning in the Primary School . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .



The Language of School ‘Subjects’ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .



English and Chinese: Similarities and Differences . . . . . . . . . . . . .



Languages and Cultures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .



Languages, Education and Science: Future Needs . . . . . . . . . . . . .



Chapter 1

Language, Learning and ‘Educational

In these lectures, I plan to roam around a fairly broad terrain. First, I will spend some
time venturing into history, in various senses of the word ‘history’, beginning with
the life history of the human child and his experiences as a baby before we might
think he has any language at all. Next, I will look at the history of the language that we
use in order to encode our knowledge, particularly our scientific knowledge—the
history of scientific English, in other words. Then, putting these two together, I shall
ask how a growing child comes to master this kind of language and put it to his own
use as a means of learning. After that, I shall explore one or two questions of the
relationship among language, education and culture, again taking the language of
science as the focal point for the discussion, and finally, I shall try to draw these
various themes together to construct a sort of language-based picture of experience—
a linguistic interpretation of how we learn and how we learn how to learn. In all of this
discussion, I am deliberately putting language at the centre of the stage. It is hard for
any of us to keep language in the focus of attention for very long: we tend to fly off
from it in all directions, to study thought processes, behaviour patterns, aesthetic
values and so on. But I shall try to resist this tendency and shall ask you to think
linguistically, that is, to use your conscious and unconscious understanding of
language as a means of thinking about the world, and in particular—since this is my
unifying concern in these lectures—to use language as a tool for exploring how
people learn. The more deeply we understand the processes of learning, the more
likely it becomes that we shall be able to help people to learn more effectively.
So in bringing together the concept of ‘language’ and the concept of ‘learning’, I
am not focusing exclusively on questions to do with learning language, whether
mother tongue, first language, second language or any others. Learning language is
obviously an essential part of the picture; but I want to see it as part of a broader
conception in which learning—all learning—is itself linguistic activity. Whatever
you learn, you are engaged in language; learning involves ‘languaging’, if you will
allow me this license with English (we have no word for the general process that
lies behind the traditional four skills). But learning is always learning something,
and since I cannot range over the whole terrain of human knowledge, I shall use
scientific learning as a kind of focus for the general discussion. Insofar as I shall be
considering language in the context of education, and of educational knowledge,
© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016
M.A.K. Halliday, Aspects of Language and Learning,
The M.A.K. Halliday Library Functional Linguistics Series,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-662-47821-9_1



1 Language, Learning and ‘Educational Knowledge’

I shall use scientific discourse as the principal domain in which to explore and from
which to draw my illustrations.
But first we should start at the beginning—or one of the beginnings. In fact,
there are two beginnings to language and learning: one is in the origins of the
human species, the phylogenetic beginnings, but these unfortunately we cannot
observe. We cannot go back in time to observe how language evolved in the early
history of the human race. The other is the birth of a human child, the ontogenetic
beginnings, and since these can be and have been observed, I would like to take this
as the starting topic of this lecture. The question I want to address is: if we take a
linguistic view of learning, how does this process start? And how then does it
evolve into a special kind of learning process that we refer to as ‘education’?
Until fairly recently, it was customary to think that a child has no language until he
starts to say things in his mother tongue, some time on in the second year of his life. It
always struck me as surprising that people would continue to hold this view when the
evidence seemed so very clear that children are communicating from birth. They are
born as communicating beings, and even if they do not begin to speak in English, or
in Chinese, or in any other one of our adult languages till they are 12–15 months of
age or more, they are typically responding to language almost from the day they are
born and using language to communicate with from somewhere around 6–9 months
of age. What they use first, however, is not our adult language, but rather a little
language they create for themselves: we could refer it as a child tongue, not a mother
tongue. But they cannot create it by themselves; no one could, because all ‘languaging’ is interactive, and this child tongue, or ‘protolanguage’, is created by a child
together with those around him—mother, father, older brothers, sisters, etc.—when
they listen to the child and understand what he is saying. The adults conduct their part
of the dialogue in their own adult language; perhaps a little bit simplified although not
necessarily so. Now, the point I want to establish first of all is that this protolanguage,
as exchanged between the child and those who share in his acts of meaning, is already
a highly effective medium of learning. Let me give you some examples from my own
observations of Nigel, when he was aged 9–14 months, to show how he was already
using his language to make sense of the world—to build up a picture out of his small
but growing body of experience.
Text 1.1: Nigel at nine months—using language to learn
Nigel had just learnt to sit up on his own, and was now ready to start meaning in earnest.
He had a little floppy rabbit; I was holding it on my hand and stroking it, then making it
jump in the air. When I stopped, Nigel put out his hand, and touched the rabbit, firmly but
without pushing it. It was a gesture which meant ‘go on, do that again’—the same meaning
that he has later to express vocally as “ùh”.
He had two other gestures. If he meant that he wanted something, he would grasp it
firmly in his fist, without pulling it towards him, and then let go. If he meant he did not want
it, he would touch it very lightly and momentarily with the tip of his finger.
These gestures were true acts of meaning. Nigel was not acting directly on the objects;
he was addressing the other person, enjoining him to act.
In addition to the three meanings conveyed by gesture, Nigel had two other meanings
which he expressed vocally. The two expressions were almost the same: one was “èu”, the

1 Language, Learning and ‘Educational Knowledge’


other, slightly higher pitched at its starting point, was “èu”. The first meant ‘let’s be
together’, and was used in conversation: “Nigel!”—“èu”—“There’s a woozy woozy
woozy”—“èu”, and so on ad inf. The other meant ‘look—a commotion’, and was the
successor to “ ' ́”, the tiny high-pitched squeak. Nigel used it to express interest in his
surroundings, especially that part of the surroundings that went into violent movement, like
a flock of birds taking off.
This was the opening scene of Nigel’s language.

These were two, out of a little set of ten or twelve ‘signs’—sounds, or gestures—
used regularly, systematically, and in a meaningful way.
Now, this is not yet a kind of English; Nigel is not yet trying to learn English, and
you could not tell from his contributions to the dialogue what his mother tongue is
going to be. (Some children do use more sound imitations at this stage, but that is just
a difference of strategy; Nigel on the other hand invented his own sounds and in fact
used some sounds that do not occur in English at all.) When my Chinese colleague
Qiu Shijin studied the early language development of children growing up in
Shanghai, she found the same pattern: first a protolanguage which did not necessarily
sound like a form of Chinese at all and then, from around the middle of the second
year, the move into the mother tongue, in this case Shanghainese (Qiu 1985). But
with the Chinese children, as with the English children, she found that the protolanguage was being used in very much the same range of meanings: it was what
they too were constructing as a tool with which to learn.
But you may well want to ask: learning what? You may doubt that what is taking
place is in any real sense learning at all. I think it is, and I think we can be rather
precise about what it is that is being learnt. This is brought out by my own
observations, by Qiu Shijin, and again by my colleague Clare Painter in her detailed
study of her first child, Hal (Painter 1984). Consider now some further examples
from Nigel.
Text 1.2(a): Nigel at ten and a half months
Ten and a half months
Nigel was sitting on my knee. On the table in front of us was a fruit bowl with an orange in
it. Nigel struggled to reach it.
“nà nà nà nà,” he said. It meant ‘I want it’, ‘give it to me’.
I gave him the orange. He made it roll on the table; it fell off.
“nà nà nà nà,” he said again.
When the game was over, he got down, crawled away and disappeared along the
passage, going boomp-boomp-boomp as he went. Then silence. His mother began to
wonder where he was.
“Nigel!” She called.
“è—e—eh” It was his special response to a call: ‘Here I am’.
“Where is he?” said his mother. “Nigel!”
She went to look for him. He was standing, precariously, by the divan, looking at his
picture cards that were hanging on the wall.
“dòh,” he said as she came in. It meant ‘hullo—shall we look at these pictures together?
“dòh … dòh”
“Are you looking at your pictures?” his mother asked him.
“dòh … dòh”

1 Language, Learning and ‘Educational Knowledge’


Text 1.2(b): Nigel at twelve months
Twelve months
Nigel and I were looking at his book together.
Nigel took hold of my finger and pressed it lightly against one of the pictures. “èya,” he
The meaning was clear: ‘you say its name’. “It’s a ball,” I said.
“è—e—eh” Nigel gave his long-drawn-out sigh, meaning ‘yes, that’s what I wanted you
to do’. He was pleased that his meaning had been successful, and he repeated the procedure
throughout the book.
Later he was looking at it all by himself.
“dò … èya … vèu”
This was Nigel’s first complex utterance and the only one for many months to come.
But it made excellent sense. He had picked up the picture book, opened it at the ball page
and pointed at the picture. It was just as if he had said, in so many words, ‘Look, a picture!
What is it? A ball!’

In the first of these examples, he is exploring the environment and his own
relation to it: expressing curiosity, interest, pleasure and so on. This is language to
think with, and we can in fact trace the path Nigel took, step by step, from those
early protolinguistic utterances to the naming of objects around him and from there
to the part of English grammar—“transitivity”—that enables him to combine the
names into complex representations of experience, such as the clause strange man
gone said spontaneously at 20 months when he saw someone pulling funny faces.
There is a direct link from protolanguage to the use of the grammar and vocabulary
of adult language as a key with which to interpret experience.
In the second example above, Nigel is not only exploring, but also exploiting:
using language to get things done. This is language not to think with but to act with.
He may be getting his mother or his father to play with him, or he may be asking for
a drink or a favourite toy—but like every human baby, he knows perfectly well that
you cannot get possession of an object by talking to that object: you have to talk to
a person, who will then (if well disposed) pass the object to you. So this kind of
language is essentially interpersonal language, the language of demands (and also
of offers; children like to give as much as to get), and once again, it is possible to
follow it through as it evolves into the adult language, this time not through the use
of words as names of things but through intonation patterns and eventually into the
grammar of mood.
So these two motifs—(1) language as a way of thinking about the environment
and (2) language as a way of acting in the environment, via the people in it—are
present from the start, from the very beginnings of the language of a human child.
In systemic functional theory, we refer to these motifs as ‘ideational’ and ‘interpersonal’. These are two of the three most general functions of language, and
because these three functions are the underlying principle on which all human
languages are built, we refer to them as ‘metafunctions’, to distinguish them from
functions in the sense of just different uses of language. The ideational and interpersonal motifs—language to think with and language to act with—are more than

1 Language, Learning and ‘Educational Knowledge’


simply uses of language: they are the fundamental organizing concepts around
which the whole of language has evolved over the past two to five million years.
And the first significant thing that the human child learns through language is that
this is what language is: it is a way of interpreting and of controlling the world he
finds around him.
If he learnt nothing else in his first encounters with language, that would be a
major achievement. But of course he does learn something else, because within
these broad motifs, he is already making meaningful distinctions: between ‘I want
that’ and ‘I don’t want it’, between ‘give me something’ and ‘play with me’,
between ‘where are you?’ and ‘there you are!’, and so on. We can observe all these
distinctions evolving in the language Nigel uses himself; if we went further and
observed what he understands of what is said to him in return, we should get an
even richer impression of what it is that he has learnt through the medium of
language—all this before he has ever said a word of his mother tongue at all.
Before following through on the experience of the child, I need to make one
thing clear. I have spoken of the child as ‘learning through language’, and this
implies a distinction between (1) learning a language and (2) using that language in
order to learn. This is an important distinction and a valid one for our analytic
purposes. But we should also acknowledge that from the point of view of the child,
these are one process not two. The child is simply learning, and learning as we have
stressed is a linguistic activity. He does not distinguish between learning the word
bus, when he gets to the naming stage, on the one hand, and on the other hand using
that word to interpret a particular experience—some noisy monster lumbering past
him in the street—and to relate this to other experiences which are alike in some
respects and different in others (e.g. the same monster when he happens to be sitting
comfortably inside it). He may practise the word bus, out of context; so to that
extent he could be said to be ‘learning language’—but even there it is doubtful
whether there is a very clear distinction between rehearing the sound and rehearsing
the experience with which that sound is associated.
The reason we need to remind ourselves of the child’s point of view in this
regard is simply this: we tend to think as adults—if we think of language at all—
that language is simply a passive element in the learning process. We think of our
experience as something given and the language as a convenient mirror in which
that experience gets reflected. Language ‘reflecting’ experience is indeed a common
metaphor that people use. But it is a misleading metaphor, nevertheless. Language
does not passively reflect experience; rather, it creates or ‘construes’ experience:
language is an active participant in the semiotic cycle. It is language that enables us
to order and interpret the flux of events in which we find ourselves, the ‘mush of
general goings-on’ as Firth used to call it, so that instead of defining language as
that which encodes experience, we can almost turn things round and define experience as the order that is created out of chaos by means of language. To say this is
to take the first step towards a language-based theory of learning.

1 Language, Learning and ‘Educational Knowledge’


What kind of language are we talking about, in this regard? Clearly not the
conceptually complex, tightly constructed metalanguages of science and philosophy
(we shall come back to those later). Here, we are concerned with the language of a
very small child; even before it has any words, or any structures, language—his
protolanguage—is already at the foundations of his learning. Once the child does
move into the mother tongue, his language becomes recognizable as language in the
adult sense: it gains a ‘lexicogrammar’, an organization in the form of
words-arranged-in-structures like that of man clean car. We can easily adapt this to
an adult model, something like there’s a man cleaning his car; indeed, the adult
who is being addressed, who was also sharing the experience, typically rewords the
child’s observation (and did, in fact, on this occasion) in a related adult form: ‘Yes,
there was a man cleaning his car’. The child gets confirmation, in this way, that his
construction of the experience matches that of the adult world: in other words, he
has ‘got it right’.
The adult’s response as we have said is in normal English, with all the grammatical words and morphemes added in place; gradually, the child will incorporate
these into his discourse too. But it will still be the ordinary everyday discourse of
the home and the neighbourhood: the unselfconscious, unplanned and
unwritten-down language of daily life. It is this that is at the foundation of our
knowledge, in at least three different ways which we shall need to explore later on.
But first I need to draw attention to one further aspect of the child’s linguistic
experiences. We have noted the twofold character of language in relation to the
environment: that we think with language, and we act with language—it is the
continuation of the two that enables us to learn. Here are some further examples,
this time from the phase of Nigel’s transition into the mother tongue.
Text 1.3: Nigel’s early mother tongue, in mathetic and pragmatic functions
chuffa stúck
high wáll
háve it
play ráo
squeeze órange
bounce táble

‘the train’s stuck; help me to get it out’
‘let me jump off and you catch me’
‘I want that’
‘let’s play at lions’
‘squeeze the orange’
‘I want to bounce the orange on the table, can I?’

Clever boy fix roof on lòrry
Dada come bàck … Dada come on
fast chùffa
too dàrk … open cùrtain … lìght

‘this clever boy fixed the roof on the lorry’
‘Daddy’s come back; Daddy came on a fast train’
‘it was too dark; you’ve opened the curtains, and
it’s light now’

1 Language, Learning and ‘Educational Knowledge’


Now, in all these instances, Nigel learns because the language refers: there is
something going on, out there, that creates a context and so enables the child to
construe an appropriate meaning. But in addition to this representational property of
language, at the same time it is encoding, or encapsulating, for him a great deal of
other potential information, about the material and behavioural environment, about
the social structure with its interpersonal relationships and about his own place in
this complex scheme of things. It does this not just by referring to what is going on
but by participating; language enables people to act out the social and physical
processes in which the child himself is involved. This point is one that is extremely
difficult to illustrate, since it depends on the continuity of linguistic interaction over
a long period, the ongoing dialogue in which the child is engaged throughout all his
early years with those who are looking after him. But let me try.
Nigel has a game, high wall, in which he throws himself full tilt off whatever
object he is standing on and has to be caught by his father before he hits the ground.
This started harmlessly enough in the park near his home, where there was an old
ruined abbey of which only some stunted walls remained; some just one or two
courses of stones above the ground—these were the ‘low walls’—and some at chest
or shoulder height (the adult’s, that is)—these were the ‘high walls’. Soon any
object, such as the arm of a settee or an upturned suitcase, could function as a ‘wall’
for ‘jumping off’. As the months went by, Nigel’s ‘high walls’ got higher and
higher, until he was participating himself from a height way above his father’s
reach—and only barely waiting to ensure his father was there to catch him. This
simple expression high wall had long since ceased to function as a name for a class
of objects; but as a consequence of its extended use, it got a variety of different
responses which provided Nigel with a great deal of miscellaneous information
from which he was able to learn. Here are just a few:
High wall!
(response:) That’s not a high wall; that’s only a low wall
Objects (e.g. wall) and their properties (high/low); properties
continuous—no clear boundary high/low, one pole is negative
(‘only low’; one couldn’t say ‘that’s not a low wall; that’s only a
high wall’).
No that wall’s too high—you’ll hurt yourself
Concept of ‘too much’ of some property—undesirable, and reason
why—in what respect—undesirable (danger and consequences)—
to himself
No Grandad doesn’t play high wall; you’re too heavy for him
This time ‘too much’ is Nigel himself—too heavy; but the focus is
on Grandad. He is old; old people are different—not so strong;
these are things they cannot do.

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