Educators meet to share new perspectives on language function

Published 22 September 2011

sallyEducators from Australia and abroad are meeting at the University of New England this week to discuss new insights into the way language works within society, and the implications of those insights for the classroom.

For example, Dr Sally Humphrey (pictured here) from the Australian Catholic University is presenting a paper comparing the forms of expression – often quite passionate – used by teenage social activists in persuading audiences in the wider community, with the more academic conventions of argument and persuasion expected of them in the classroom. “Teachers need to be aware of that difference,” she said, “and perhaps encourage a bit more passion in the classroom.”

“Some of the most exciting discoveries occur at the interface between disciplines,” said the Vice-Chancellor of UNE, Professor Jim Barber, in officially opening this year’s national conference of the Australian Systemic Functional Linguistics Association (ASFLA). “This relatively new field is at the interface of disciplines spanning the humanities and the social sciences.”

The ASFLA President, Associate Professor Rosemary Huisman from the University of Sydney, explained that, while Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) was centred on the discipline of linguistics itself, it provided a framework for language to be studied within its “social contexts”.

The title of this year’s conference is “Language, knowledge & justice: new contexts, new questions”. “The conference themes – language, knowledge and justice – emerge from continuing and new research in SFL,” Dr Huisman said. “In the ‘justice’ theme, for example, we recognise important new work in youth conferencing, legal processes, and literacy research addressing inequities in education.” Dr Huisman’s own contribution to the conference is a paper (in collaboration with Professor Tony Blackshield from Macquarie University) analysing the language of a series of legal judgments between 1929 and 1987.

A paper by UNE’s Professor Len Unsworth draws on SFL-related research into the relationship between language and images in the education of young children. Professor Unsworth is leading a three-year project, funded by the Australian Government, exploring methods of teaching young students how to author their own digitally-animated stories. His conference paper discusses the use of multimedia publications such as the award-winning children’s book and animated film The Lost Thing, by Shaun Tan, in helping students to develop a strong narrative technique.

UNE’s Diane Hansford, co-convener of this year’s conference with her colleague Associate Professor Mary Macken-Horarik, said it was exciting to have key people in the SFL field meeting at UNE and sharing their ideas. “It’s stimulating positive dialogue,” she said. “We’re coming together to push our work – across disciplines – in new directions.”

Among the other invited speakers are Jim Martin, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, Andres Ramirez, Assistant Professor in the Educational Studies Department at Rhode Island College in the United States, and Dr Karl Maton from the University of Sydney, well-known for his innovative work in the sociology of education.