Christian Matthiessen

Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen is Professor under the María Zambrano scheme, Complutense University. He has degrees in linguistics from Lund University (BA), where he also studied English, Arabic and philosophy, and in linguistics from UCLA (MA, PhD), and has previously held positions at USC/ Information Sciences Institute, Sydney University, Macquarie University, and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He has held visiting appointments at e.g. the University of Hamburg and the Brain Science Division of the RIKEN Institute in Tokyo. He is Honorary Professor, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, the Australian National University, Canberra, and Guest Professor, University of Science and Technology, Beijing.

Matthiessen has been involved in major text-based research projects informed by systemic functional linguistics since 1980, starting with the Penman project at USC/Information Sciences Institute, which produced a large-scale systemic functional grammar of English (the Nigel grammar). His research has covered a wide range of areas (all informed by Systemic Functional Linguistics, SFL), including analysis of many kinds of discourse, corpus compilation and corpus-based studies, register analysis and context-based text typology, the development of Rhetorical Structure Theory (jointly with Bill Mann and Sandy Thompson), the description of English and other languages spoken around the world, language typology and comparison, translation studies, multisemiotic studies, institutional linguistics, computational linguistics, the evolution of language, and systemic functional theory.

With researchers around the world, he is doing research in various areas informed by SFL, including medical discourse/ health communication, aspects of educational linguistics (e.g. L2 writing development), language description, registerial cartography, multilingual studies (language comparison and typology, translation studies and second/foreign language education), language arts, the language of space, and the development of Systemic Functional Linguistic theory.  

Matthiessen has lectured and given courses around the world, including in China, Japan, S. Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Greece, Germany, Denmark and the UK, Lebanon, Canada, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and he is involved in a number of international research networks.

Matthiessen has authored and co-authored over 150 book chapters and journal articles. His books include Systemic linguistics and text generation: experiences from Japanese and English (with John Bateman, 1991), Lexicogrammatical cartography: English systems (1995), Working with functional grammar (with J.R. Martin and Clare Painter, 1997), Construing experience: a language-based approach to cognition (with M.A.K. Halliday, 1999), Halliday’s Introduction to functional grammar (revised version of Halliday’s book, with M.A.K. Halliday, 2014), Functional typology (edited, with Alice Caffarel & J.R. Martin, 2004), Continuing discourse on language (edited, with Ruqaiya Hasan and Jonathan Webster, 2005 and 2007), Systemic functional grammar: a first step into the theory ([in English and Chinese] with M.A.K. Halliday, 2009, with an introduction by Huang Guowen), Key terms in systemic functional linguistics (with Kazuhiro Teruya and Marvin Lam, 2010), Deploying functional grammar (with  J.R. Martin and Clare Painter, 2010), “System” in Systemic Functional Linguistics: a system-based theory of language (in press, with Equinox), The texture of casual conversation (with Diana Slade, forthcoming, with Equinox), A Guide to Systemic Functional Linguistics (with Kazuhiro Teruya, forthcoming with Routledge), Rhetorical System and Structure Theory: The semantic system of rhetorical relations (forthcoming), The Architecture of Language according to Systemic Functional Linguistics (forthcoming), Systemic Functional Insights on Language and Linguistics (with Wang Bo, Yuanyi Ma & Isaac N. Mwinlaaru, in press, with Springer), and Systemic Functional Linguistics, Part I (2021), Volume 1 of The Collected Works of Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen, in 8 volumes with Equinox, edited by Kazuhiro Teruya and team. 



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Professor Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen’s Thoughts on Linguistics and Research


1. What does language mean to you?

Language is a resource for making meaning in context — a meaning potential, covering different modes of meaning (ideational meaning: a resource for construing our experience of the world around us and inside us as meaning; interpersonal meaning: a resource for enacting our roles, relations and values as meaning; and textual meaning: a resource for creating ideational and interpersonal meaning as a modulated flow of information in context). 

As a resource for making meaning, language is a semiotic system, systems of meaning — more specifically a higher-order semiotic system. Semiotic systems are the highest order of system in an ordered typology of systems operating in different phenomenal realms: semiotic systems < social systems < biological systems < physical systems. Like other semiotic systems, language is enacted in social systems, embodied in biological systems, and manifested in physical systems. A speaker, or meaner, plays many roles as a person taking roles (or personae) in different role networks, and is embodied as a biological organism. Language “inherits” the properties of lower-order systems. (As an aside, but an important one, systems of the highest order — the ones we interpret as semiotic systems, systems of meaning — have been interpreted in a complementary way as cognitive systems, systems of knowledge.)


2. What piece of advice would you give to new PhD candidates about a career in linguistics research?

Try to balance considerations of what you are absolutely passionate about in linguistics — what fascinates you and can sustain you throughout your candidature — with strategic and tactical considerations, also keeping in mind our sense of social accountability as academics. Where is the field you are interested in headed? Is it possible to discern the cutting edge, and determine what contributions appear to be valued? What kinds of academic positions are being advertised? (This may of course change by the time you’re about to submit your thesis.)

View your PhD programme in terms of the different activities you will undertake in different roles as these activities unfold in time, and develop a sense of what you can achieve within a certain period of time (with a certain quantum of energy) and how this relates to the overall time of your programme, and beyond thinking ahead about what you would like to do once you have completed your degree. 

Keeping an intellectual diary can be a helpful activity, e.g. using Evernote. You can also use it to get a sense of how long certain tasks take. For example, how long does it take you to transcribe ten minutes of spoken text, how long does it take you to analyse it in terms of some particular system? When do you need to change gears to remain inspired and healthy, for example by taking your brain for a stimulating walk or by meeting up with other researchers. Start using academic “social” platforms like ResearchGate and Academia early, developing your profile, and networking with fellow researchers around the world. Build your own e-library, looking for journal articles, theses and the like that you can use as models in terms of what constitutes a realistic quantum of research, what frameworks and methods work well given your research areas and questions. As you build your own e-library, think about criteria for including and excluding work — anticipating your own literature review, and attempting to make it systematic rather than simply a traditional overview.

As you begin to get into your PhD studies, identify opportunities to present aspects of your work at conferences, and sketch possible journal articles. It’s quite possible that you could produce a systemic review of some area of scholarship where there isn’t one yet — and systematic reviews tend to attract many citations! It used to be the case that PhD students started thinking about journal publications once they had completed their theses; now academic positions for fresh PhDs often come with an expectation of a publication record.


3. What lines of research do you recommend to students interested in Systemic Functional Linguistics?

Typically, research students interested in Systemic Functional Linguistics and doing research empowered by SFL have chosen their own lines of research, as is commonly the case in the humanities — unlike e.g. engineering disciplines where PhD students may be assigned research topics. Most importantly, the line of research that you choose should really intrigue and energize you! You’ll stay with it for several years. Of course it is helpful to consult overviews to discern the different frontiers of research — systematic reviews if available, companions, handbooks, encyclopaedias. Such resources can also give you a sense of the depth of time of different lines of research, and their trajectories. 

You’ll find that there are periods when there is a concerted collective effort to do research in some areas, like multimodal discourse analysis, appraisal analysis, corpus-based critical discourse analysis. At the same time, there may be other areas that are very important but not currently “fashionable”, like the description of transitivity, the description of phonology, probabilistic descriptions of different systems. There are clearly new and very exciting theoretical areas like neurosemiotics. But there will also be problems that need addressing in new institutional contexts in the community. For example, research in institutions of education is very well established, but there is relatively little research based on longitudinal case studies of second/ foreign language learning; and research involving communication in institutions of healthcare is more recent, relatively speaking. It may be possible to do important research in serious national, regional or global problem areas as in ecolinguistics — or the language of war and peace.


4. In recent times, which book has impacted you the most or has been relevant to your field of research? 

I tend to read several books at the same time, jumping from one to another. ☺ I often find that books outside linguistics can be very stimulating because I have a general sense of the trends in linguistics (although certainly not in all fields; for example, I don’t follow work in language assessment). When I read such books, I keep thinking about how to interpret them systemic functionally, about how to make connections with language. 

For example, Lisa Feldman Barrett’s (2017) book How emotions are made: the secret life of the brain is fascinating to me because I have explored the lexicogrammar of emotions and so much of what she says resonates with our thinking in SFL, e.g. in Construing experience: a language-based approach to cognition by Michael Halliday and myself. She adopts a constructivist approach to emotions (hence “how emotions are made”), showing that they are not (contrary to much popular opinion and mainstream scholarship) universal but rather construed in different ways in different cultures — which is of course where languages play the central role. She writes about the conceptual categories we learn and use to construe emotions — and these are of course meanings. She also transcends the traditional dichotomy between nature and nurture (compare also her popular science book “Seven and a half lessons about the brain”), showing that growing brains are tuned in interaction with immediate caregivers in different (in our terms) social and semiotic environments. (This links up with Colwyn Trevarthen’s studies of the development of intersubjectivity, and Patricia Kuhl’s investigation of very young children “taking statistics” on the sound systems they are embedded in.) She emphasized “social reality”, to which I would add the semiotic perspective. 

Another non-linguistic book with implications for linguistics I have valued is Albert Barabási’s (2016) Network science — again very resonant with the systemic functional conception of language as a vast network of relations defining a multi-dimensional semiotic space. I’ve been enjoying John Gribbin’s The Scientists, which is a history of science through the “lens” of the lives of scientists — an account that can be helpful in thinking about research pursuits such as doing a PhD. 

Another fascinating book is Patrick Nunn’s The Edge of Memory … But I’d better stop listing books for now! 


5. What is your uptake on the interdisciplinary possibilities that linguistics offers in different spheres (politics, entrepreneurship...) and research fields (literature, computer science, philosophy...)? 

In principle, the interdisciplinary possibilities are huge — because language is so central to human life, and so crucial in different spheres and research fields. I can relate your question to my answer to your previous question: when I read contributions from different disciplines, naturally often popular sciences versions, I realize how one could build bridges to support future dialogue.

One of my dreams is that linguistics will become a secondary school subject. If it did, there would be much more general awareness of what kind of phenomenon language really is — instead of only awareness of more exposed features that are easy to observe or of what people may remember from school grammar. And employers might realize the value of recruiting discourse analysts as part of their teams. 

Thus people in different spheres and in different research fields may not be aware of the power of linguistics — or they know it only as it comes to them from, say, Chomsky and Pinker. I have seen again and again how scholars in other disciplines get hold of the wrong kind of linguistics — wrong in terms of what their objectives and research questions are — and then don’t pursue a dialogue with linguists because they don’t think they address their questions. But if you have the resources of a holistic, appliable kind of linguistics like SFL with emphasis on the need to develop comprehensive descriptions, there is a great deal that can be done. Obviously, we need to promote a public understanding of the possibilities — of the applicability of linguistics. 

To take just one example: George Freedman has developed an interesting model to support forecasting in geopolitics (and written two books forecasting the world in 10 years, and in 100 years). This model naturally takes account of different kinds of discourse, but we could suggest ways of expanding the systematicity and bandwidth of the linguistic analysis of relevant and formative discourses. — Large-scale suggestions often come from outside linguistics, like the work on “Culturomics” designed to track cultural trends (including members from the Google team). But what if we could enhance such analyses in a linguistically informed and powerful way? 

To nurture interdisciplinary — or transdisciplinary — dialogue and collaborative projects, we can try to develop maps or models that show how our different areas of expertise and engagement complement one another. Thus in working with multi-disciplinary teams in computational linguistic projects, we found that it was helpful to develop an account of the levels or strata of our metalanguage in its context. But in other contexts, such as those of education and healthcare we will need to develop different maps.