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Grammatical metaphor and the social genesis of abstraction in the writing of apprentice scholars using English as an additional language Ferreira, Alfredo Afonso

Abstract

A central feature of written academic discourse is variability in the degrees and functions of abstraction. By means of abstract construals, writers reconfigure direct experiences of the world into abstract, general and technical concepts, compress dynamic reasoning into more stable forms of scholarly thinking, organize discourse to facilitate its interpretation, and present a more objective interpersonal stance (Halliday, 1998). These functions of abstraction often challenge second-language (L2) academic writers using English, who may have gaps in their internalized lexicogrammatical and semantic systems of English and may also be unfamiliar with expectations in scholarly cultures that are associated with these systems (Schleppegrell, 2004b). This study aims to better understand L2 writers’ use of grammatical metaphor (GM), the central resource of language for construing abstraction (Halliday, 1994, 1998), specifically ideational GM, the sub-type (including nominalization) that is most salient in academic writing. This aim was pursued through analysis of the writing of four Japanese first-language users who were at late undergraduate to early graduate levels in their respective disciplines, and who intended to become professional scholars. The setting was an English for academic purposes (EAP) writing course at a selective national university in Tokyo. The study adopts a transdisciplinary framework (Hasan, 2005/1992) integrating Vygotsky’s psychological (1978) notion of semiotic mediation, systemic functional linguistic (SFL) theory of language as a social semiotic resource (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004), and the sociology of education of Bernstein (1990, 1999), whose concept of socio-semantic dispositions emphasizes social subjects’ robust, cultural-historically evolved tendencies in mediating knowledge through language. Conventional qualitative and quantitative methods of analyzing GM were extended through the development of nominal density (ND) analysis, an instrument that allows for direct, quantitative analysis of GM use. By these means, the study generates insight into the functions of GM-enabled abstraction in students’ writing, notably in detailing the changes in these functions across the students’ individual and aggregated writing corpora. While the limited data do not allow for generalization of the findings to other populations, the study makes appreciable empirical contributions to a rapidly emerging area of research in studies of L2 academic writing and L2 development.

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