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Home Journal Index 2022-2

What is Language Anyway? A View on Teaching English Proficiency in Higher Education

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Kimberley Mouvet
Stamina, Bruges, Belgium

Miriam Taverniers
Ghent University, Belgium


When training students at a tertiary level, we expect them to develop into expert users of language (Byrnes et al., 2006). This implies they are able to deal with linguistic problems of both a theoretical and a practical nature (Martin, 2016). However, what is often missing in our teaching practices is a model of language that would offer them the tools to do so (Hasan, 1999; Martin, 2016). Traditionally, proficiency programmes seem primarily concerned with grammatical rules and vocabulary expansion (Macken-Horarik et al., 2015). This focus on decontextualized language downplays the primary goal of language: to communicate with another (Halliday, 2014; Hasan, 1999). In our English proficiency programme we have adopted a systemic functional model of language to inform the design of our courses (Halliday, 2014). As such, we focus on lexicogrammar from an ideational point of view offering a metalanguage to talk about language (i.e. grammatics rather than grammar rules (Halliday, 2002)) and we add to this an interpersonal approach to the instances of language use in writing and speaking classes. Students are taught to operationalize these two (ideational and interpersonal) exploiting textual resources. Together, these three components — ideational, interpersonal and textual choices — construe the variables of context of situation: field, tenor and mode respectively (Martin, 2016). Working with these variables, we maintain, gives students a solid theoretical foundation and understanding of the functioning of language, and allows them to effectively communicate a focused purpose in any genre relevant to our culture.

Tertiary education, English proficiency, systemic functional linguistics