How the Brain Makes Meaning from Discourse

February 2023

It’s easy to focus on language in isolation, but this month we want to remind our readers that communication, in any medium, requires participants to engage in making meaning together, with a reliance on unspoken rules, shared contexts, cultural norms, and discourse markers. How do our brains process discourse? Read on to find out more!

Our cover: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

Cover photo by Alan Levine on Flikr; others from Unsplash, Daily Create & Creative Commons

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank looks at discourse, an important part of language teaching that is often overlooked. The Main video describes three key parts of discourse analysis while the More video shows how discourse works in real life.

In the Think Tank, Curtis Kelly looks at discourse structures in expository writing, including how they vary across cultures, and will connect them to a basic operation of the brain. In a more detailed explanation of Conversation Analysis, Christine Winskowski proposes showing students in speaking classes how to do their own conversation analysis. Anthony Elias ties together the themes by demonstrating how schemas are found throughout language, behavior, and thought. Then Laura Gibbs and Heather Kretchmer offer us with an enjoyable read about the neural processes of creative writing, and how to play with the discourse rules in tiny writing.

Finally, in the PLUS section, Skye Playsted tells us about her moving experience with a refugee learner. Have some tissues ready.

Our Thoughts on Discourse

Discourse: What it is and How we Will Examine it 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.

Think Tank Articles

How Discourse Uses a Fundamental Operation of the Brain Curtis Kelly

Whenever someone mentions discourse, I think about one particular area of discourse: expository writing. I might be biased since I co-authored a Cambridge textbook series teaching it, but expository writing is the mainstay of school report writing, media writing, and business writing. Why? Because exposition basically just means explaining stuff. It is a kind of writing we teach by focusing on organization, a key component of discourse. Organization refers to a particular set of rules we use to encode information so that the reader can decode it in the same way. Expository[1] organization is important to teach because it is not as natural to us as narrative (time-ordered) organization is, and the rules vary across cultures. My students in Japan had a terrible time writing comprehensible papers, partly as we shall see because of Japanese discourse interference, and that led me to make teaching organization the mainstay of my classes.

Teaching Talk (and Mind-Reading) with Conversation Analysis Christine Winskowski

Take a look at this brief conversation excerpt:

A. So, do you think you’re going to get the job?

B. I might, but what’s it to you?

A. Nothing much really. It’s not something I’d want to do.

Can you tell what is going on here? Do you get any impression about who these people might be? Are they male or female (or can you tell?)? What is their relationship?

How Schemata Helps Us Comprehend Discourse Anthony Elias

Somewhere in the universe, there is a heartbroken man who just had this conversation…

Woman: I’m Leaving You!

Man: Who is he!

Any English speaker who read this knew in less than a second that the “he” is referring to a romantic rival of some sort. But how do we know this, despite the fact that it was never mentioned?

The Power of Creative Constraints in Tiny Writing Laura Gibbs & Heather Kretschmer

How do constraints prompt creativity? If you have ever played a solitaire card game like FreeCell or Klondike, you know something about the power of creative constraints—the cards come up at random, and there are strict rules about which cards you can move in order to clear the board. What are you going to do? Which cards will you move? As you make your choices and move the cards within the limits of the game’s constraints, you try to find a creative solution, something unforeseen and not obvious at first, a set of moves that will allow you to win the game… while having fun in the process.

Think Tank Plus

Becoming a Friend and a Teacher: ELT is a “Non-Neutral” Practice Skye Playsted

My introduction to AMEP was thanks to Jaya, who had lived with her family in Australia for nine years on a temporary visa. Jaya was an asylum seeker. When she was sixteen, the war in her homeland was at its peak. Jaya had completed high school and was hoping to begin studying at university the following year, but her parents feared for their daughter’s safety as the youngest girl in the family. Jaya was sent on a boat to another country, where she lived in a refugee camp for some years. She married there and left the camp with her husband and their two-year-old daughter to seek asylum in Australia. I met Jaya through a mutual friend who had given her my number to contact about English lessons. I helped her to enroll in the local AMEP and was subsequently offered teaching work there. Jaya was in my first AMEP class, and we have remained friends ever since.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

The illustrations and photos in Laura Gibbs and Heather Kretschmer’s article were contributed by people from the Daily Create community. If you like doing creative stuff, check out the Daily Create. Maybe you’ll even find some fun tasks you can adapt for your students. So, what is this Daily Create? Sheri Edwards concisely explains:

Learn about the Daily Create here: DS106 Daily Create About—it’s 15-20 minutes of creative art making. Then go to the day’s Daily Create and try one out! Anytime!

All are welcome. Welcome to join. Welcome to make art. Welcome to break the rules. Welcome to add your own Daily Creates here.

Image by Sheri Edwards


What are Mental Models and How Do your Students Use Them? video



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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

             Heather Kretschmer          Curtis H. Kelly            Skye Playsted               

    Jason Walters                               Mohammad Khari




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