Re: [xmca] Talking Science With Dr. Christie

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sun Jan 21 2007 - 08:55:49 PST

I am only just catching up with the interesting discussion relating
second-language learning and the mastery of academic registers.
Obviously there are useful similarities, but we also have to expect
some differences. And there certainly are also a lot of differences
in how some of us are using terms and interpreting one another's work!

I'm especially happy to hear from Fran Christie, Ellice Forman, and
Dev Derewianka, as well as other friends on these points. Let me try
not to let this get too long, and not reply to everything, but just
some key points.

Academic registers, like professional language generally, are
specializations within, let's say (though for many it's not so) our
first language. I have never thought that the language of science
_is_ science, though in most curricula, learning to talk science in
the officially approved manner is the actual goal of the curriculum
(whatever is claimed, vaguely, about 'concept understanding'). Of
course science _is_ a system of material practices, which includes
the deployment of language (and other semiotic resources), to
investigate, make sense about, and manipulate physical phenomena. (I
am an agnostic about the role of the brain, and a skeptic about what
'mind' could possible mean in all this.) I agree with Jim Gee, and
most people who do language "pragmatics", that you can't really
deploy the science register very well unless you also acquire some
bodily experience, visualizations, and identity dispositions around
science practices and natural phenomena, and integrate all these.

In that respect learning to talk science appropriately (and there are
different criteria for that) is like learning a new/foreign language
-- you need to experience the links of language to setting and task,
and probably to culture, to produce more than just a facsimile of
speaking the language.

The disagreement I have with Fran, and some others, is over how we
see the relationship of mastery to critique. Her view, I think, is
that you have to master a lot before you can usefully critique it. My
view is that unless you critique all the way along during the
learning process, your critiques will tend to be oppositional rather
than truly alternative (outside the box, radical). These are extreme
poles; realistic education needs to navigate between them.

I am not an expert on early childhood education, or second language
learning. I agree with Fran that just having kids talk about their
daily lives in class will tend to become routinized and not help
extend their meaning-making repertoires (with language). That happens
with a lot of language in secondary education, too. You can egg this
on as a teacher by having follow-up dialogues of the right sort. But
while this is most likely the case in first-language development, it
may still be true that such activities are helpful in second-language
learning. I'd wait to see the evidence. I think Halliday would be
likely to favor dialogue over monologue for this, as well.

On the point of abstract and concrete vs grammatical metaphor, there
can easily be a lot of confusion. The developmental, and historical,
sequence is from forms of grammatical expression that are more
everyday, more narrative, and more easily mapped one-to-one onto
concrete experience in terms of verbs-for-actions, nouns-for-actors,
adjectives-for-qualities, etc. to forms of grammatical expression
that are more technically or bureaucratically specialized (i.e.
institutional and professional registers), more analytical-logical,
and take a lot of unpacking and re-grammaticizing to map onto
everyday ontological categories. In broad terms, this is a movement
from concrete to abstract, though those terms are much more slippery ones.

In second-language learning, I would _guess_ that older learners can
transfer grammatical metaphor from first-language to second-language,
at least in specific familiar registers, and do not recapitulate the
developmental process of learning to use grammatical metaphor. They
only need to learn the peculiarities of how it's done in the new
language. Many other learners, however, will never have progressed
very far with GM in the first language. It's much less clear what
their learning path is or should be.

Finally, I really do like the idea that foreign-language learning is
above all a way to really understand your first language better as a
meaning-making resource, because you can compare it to a different
one. Halliday gained a lot of insight into English by learning
Chinese. A first stage in this process may simply be getting a sense
of what a grammar is, since native speakers usually can't describe
the grammars of their first languages at all. But, as noted above,
the full benefits don't accrue unless you learn not just the
grammatical descriptions, but the usage conventions (pragmatics), and
with them, the culture and its different way of seeing the world,
much of which is enabled by as well as instantiated in the use of the language.


At 08:55 AM 1/21/2007, you wrote:
>I hope I didn't transgress any interpersonal boundaries by including
>Fran Christie in the discussion. Just to add another dimension, I
>have a response from Beverly Derewianka (below), my principal
>doctoral supervisor and a researcher who has done a lot of work on
>grammatical metaphor and its development in adolescents. She has some
>interesting observations from a SFL perspective on rank/clause-
>shifting and compacting information that provide good support for
>claiming the difficulties that students face with many scientific
>You write "Abstract constructions involve recognition that utterances
>contain functional entities that have absolutely no real world
>referents, such as "noun", "verb", "subject", etc." - I am intrigued
>what you mean by "real world referents". Also, you mention Vygotsky
>relating foreign language teaching to teaching scientific concepts -
>A.A. Leontiev in Psychology and the Language Learning Process pdf
>takes Vygotsky's ideas much further in terms of communicative
>language activity. We had a discussion here a while back that
>included that chapter by A.A.L. as well as others > see June/July
>Bev Derewianka wrote:
>A quick response to David re grammatical metaphor:
>David wrote:
>An electron moves in an orbit-->The orbital motion of the electron
>It's absolutely the case that a process (moves) turns into an entity
>(motion). But isn't it also the case that an entity (orbit) turns
>into a quality and another entity (electron) turns into another
>quality? Or am I confusing "quality" with "modifier" here?
>Your analysis is pretty much in line with the Hallidayan notion of
>grammatical metaphor (though terminology might differ somewhat). The
>major shift is from a clause ('an electron moves in orbit') to a
>nominal group ('the orbital motion of the electron'). Halliday refers
>to this as 'rank-shift', where a process configuration (in this case,
>a participant ('an electron') which is engaged in an activity
>('moves') accompanied by a circumstance of place ('in an orbit')) has
>been shifted to the rank of simply a 'bit player' in another clause
>(eg 'The orbital motion of the electron changes due to the external
>magnetic field'). In the process of down-grading, the participant
>('the electron') and circumstance ('in an orbit') have lost their
>status as major players in a clause and have become simply elements
>of the nominal group ('the orbital motion of the electron'). Halliday
>notes some 26 such shifts in status/function in his taxonomy of
>grammatical metaphor - including the shift from a fully-fledged
>participant in a clause (eg 'an electron') to a modifier in a nominal
>group ('of the electron'). The effect of the downgrading/rankshifting
>is to compact information - it is now taken for granted and used as a
>springboard for the next proposition. It is this density and
>cumulative reasoning that makes it hard for many students to cope
>with scientific texts.
>xmca mailing list

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276
Website. <>
xmca mailing list

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Feb 01 2007 - 10:11:33 PST