Discourse: What it is and How we Will Examine it

Discourse: What it is and How we Will Examine it

By: Christine Winskowski

In this month’s Think Tank, we address discourse, defined as “connected sentences” or patterns “beyond the boundaries of the sentence.” That includes what people say to each other, what people say to themselves, and how people order their thoughts for writing. Studying discourse reveals the mechanisms, structures, conventions, strategies, and organization of whole conversations, speeches, written articles, narratives, and even mental processes. These patterns are often taken for granted by native speakers, but may be difficult to grasp for students encountering a new language. As language teachers, we are accustomed to thinking about language all the time (in terms of vocabulary, grammar, etc.). Looking at discourse is looking at language-situated-in-realtime-use.

Watch before you read

Our first video by Evan Ashworth succinctly introduces three key areas of the analysis of discourse: Conversation Analysis (about the structure and rules of conversation), Discourse Analysis (the co-construction of meaning), and Critical Discourse Analysis (the role of discourse in politics, society, and identity). Our second video by Elizabeth Stokoe shows practical and entertaining applications of conversation analysis. First, she uses her conversation data to demonstrate less successful and more successful ways that dating couples can find out about their date’s relationship history. Next, she shows research with telephone conversations that reveals the “magic word” that agency staff must use to successfully persuade another person to become a client of their services.

The Think Tank

Curtis Kelly looks at discourse structures in expository writing, and connects them to the brain’s way of making models and using them to predict. In a more detailed explanation of Conversation Analysis, Christine Winskowski proposes showing students in speaking classes how to do their own conversation analysis and use it as a learning tool. Anthony Elias ties together the themes by demonstrating how schemas are found throughout language, behavior, and thought. Then, in a delightful article, Laura Gibbs and Heather Kretchmer will follow with a quick examination of the neural processes of creative writing, and some truly creative tiny writing tasks for the classroom. Finally, don’t miss Skye Playsted’s touching story about a refugee in the PLUS section.

Last minute addition from the editors:

Christine has given us a succinct definition of discourse, the editors were discussing how even with good definitions, this abstract concept is still hard to grasp. Then, Heather found this neat little piece by Scott Thornton an example to complement what Christine had to say. Here’s the first half.

In a recent article I describe the term discourse as being “both slippery and baggy: slippery because it eludes neat definition, and baggy because it embraces a wide range of linguistic and social phenomena” (Thornbury 2010, p. 270). Is there any way of nailing it down?

In An A-Z of ELT I define discourse as “any connected piece of speaking or writing”. Let’s test this definition with an authentic example:

Just arrivd. I’m on the bus.

The text is certainly connected: the travel lexis (arrivd and bus) connects the two clauses topically. The ellipted subject (I) in the first clause is recoverable from the second clause, so that both clauses share a common theme. Moreover, the clauses are sequenced in such a way that they map on to the script that represents, in schematic form, what happens when people arrive at, say, an airport. The definite article the, in the bus, presupposes shared knowledge as to which bus (possibly the airport bus) is being referred to.

By invoking shared knowledge and a context of use, however, we are going beyond the (linguistic) text itself and hypothesizing, not only a recipient, but a particular relationship between the sender and the recipient, and a particular interpretation of the text that is consistent with the sender’s purpose. In short, we are assuming that the text is coherent, that it has some communicative purpose, and that it is the (partial) trace of a more extended exchange.

Which indeed it was: the message was sent (by me) in response to the following:

Are U there yet? Cheers, Grzegorz.

Scott goes on to explain how this tiny text shows a special relationship between the people involved, Grzegorz was hosting Scott at a conference, and that there was some shared knowledge behind the exchange. Scott also muses on how texting “I’m on the bus” can have different meanings in different situations. He then ends with:

So, discourse can mean connected text, or language in use, or language as a social practice. Which leads me to wonder: which of these meanings has the most relevance to the way learners are taught to interpret and produce texts in class?

Okay, this helps, so let’s read on.

(From An A-Z of ELT on Scott Thornbury’s Blog, an update of his 2006 Macmillan book The New A-Z of ELT.)

Christine Winskowski, retired professor from Iwate Prefectural University, now consults, edits, and writes in Hawaii. On occasion, she has told students she reads their minds.

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