D is for Discourse Analysis

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Discourse analysis is about understanding what is not said. Consider this conversation:

Speaker 1: Do you think we could watch a movie?
Speaker 2: Ah, yeah. That’s gonna happen. Have you practiced piano?
Speaker 1: I’ll just get a snack first?
Speaker 2: Sure. We can eat it during the movie.

If you are a native speaker of English, the conversation will strike you as easy to understand and, hopefully, humorous. But that’s because you were able to recognize a series of subtle linguistic cues. These cues are typical in any conversational exchange, but also in written discussions, such as in texts and emails. It’s worth looking at eight types of discourse-analysis cues in detail and seeing how they would apply to this short conversation.

The first cue has to do with the setting, or where the speech event is located in time and space. If you’re a native speaker, you probably realize this conversation takes place at a home in the evening because practicing the piano fits into that particular schemata (mind map of associated ideas). Although people practice piano at music schools, it’s more commonly practiced at home. This is reinforced by the idea of someone asking permission to have a snack and watch a movie, which also gives a clue about the participants.

Participants in a conversation are those who take part in the speech event, and the roles they play. In the short conversation above, the act of asking for something—a snack—helps to define roles and makes it likely that the conversation is between a child and a parent.

The ends are all about understanding what the purposes of the speech acts are, and what their outcomes are meant to be. If we assume that Speaker 1 is a child, there are two obvious ends at play; the first is to watch a movie and the second is to have a snack. However there is an additional subtle act here. Most native speakers would understand that the child is trying to achieve an end of avoiding having to practice piano.

What about Speaker 2, the parent? This is more difficult, because no direct mention is made of what the parent wants beyond the simple question, “Have you practiced piano?” And yet, if we understand the role of a question is sometimes simply to serve as a reminder, then getting the child to practice is the end that Speaker 2 hopes to achieve in the conversation.

The next consideration is the act sequence, what speech acts make up the speech event, and what order they are performed in. We can describe the conversation in terms of its types of questions, statements, and answers:

Speaker 1: question
Speaker 2: reply, comment on the reply, question
Speaker 1: question
Speaker 2: reply, clarification

This seems to give a clear picture of what is going on in the conversation, but it overlooks what linguists call the key, the tone or manner of performance. And here we have the greatest challenge to second language learners: the contrast between the seeming earnestness on the part of Speaker 1 and the sarcasm on the part of Speaker 2. Definitions of sarcasm make it out to be an extremely cruel form of humor. The kindest summary of it would be to suggest that it’s about saying the opposite of what was meant as a way to draw attention to a point. But there are three other considerations that that temper our interpretations of this sarcasm: instrumentalities, norms of interaction, and genres.

Instrumentalities are the channels or mediums of communication. The example conversation is clearly between two individuals in the same room. It might also work as a couple of rounds of text messages. But sarcasm often fails in emails, text messages, and phone calls because the context for the information has been removed. A large part of this context may have to do with facial expressions and body language.

Norms of interaction are the rules for producing and interpreting speech acts. Second language speakers often get into trouble with these norms because they misapply them, for example, being too formal in casual situations or vice versa. It may be because they misunderstand the genres that are involved.

Genres are the types of speech event, and other pre-existing conventional forms of speech, that are drawn on or cited in producing appropriate contributions to talk. In the case of the example conversation, because the two participants seem to know each other well and have probably had this type of conversation many times in the past, the genre’s rules of engagement are well understood (in fact, Speaker 1 is notorious for avoiding piano practice).

But what would a textbook do with the conversation? It would remove the ambiguity, the sarcasm, and the life from the exchange. It might be more accessible, but it would be the language of robots, not native speakers:

Speaker 1: Do you think we cCould we watch a movie?

Speaker 2: Ah, yeah. That’s gonna happen. No, we can’t. Have you practiced piano?

Speaker 1: No, I haven’t. I’ll just get May I have a snack first?

Speaker 2: Sure. We can eat it during the movie. No, you may not.

It’s sometimes good for students to understand what encounter discourse that they don’t understand; the confusion they encounter experience with difficult texts is a wake-up call for them to acknowledge that English—and the deep pleasures of English wit—are as subtle as those in their first language, and just as worthwhile to learn. A teacher who is able to explore and explain discourse analysis can help them to do so.

Dr. Ken Beatty, TESOL Professor at Anaheim University in California, has also taught in Asia, Canada, and the Middle East, and lectures widely on language teaching and learning from the elementary through university levels. He has given 200+ teacher-training sessions in 25 countries and is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).