Discourse Analysis

Discourse Analysis

Soe Marlar Lwin (Singapore University of Social Sciences, Singapore)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8467-4.ch010
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This chapter introduces discourse analysis as a sub-discipline of linguistics. Relevant concepts from pragmatics, another closely-related sub-discipline, are also discussed within the context of discourse analysis. The chapter begins by explaining the relationship between pragmatics and discourse analysis, and key terms such as “text” and “discourse.” It then examines the distinctions between linguistic and non-linguistic contexts, and situational and sociocultural contexts. To help readers understand the importance of culture in using language to make meanings, the introduced concepts are illustrated with sample authentic texts as well as examples from English and a few other languages. Placing discourse at the core of language teaching and learning, the chapter recommends a discourse-based approach to help ELLs develop not only communicative competence but also intercultural communicative competence. The chapter provides ESOL teachers with knowledge of discourse analysis and the implications of this knowledge for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners of English.
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Pragmatics And Discourse Analysis

Pragmatics and discourse analysis are two closely related fields which examine how language is used to make meanings in actual situations of communication. As sub-disciplines of linguistics, both fields acknowledge that our interpretation of the meaning of a piece of language is based on not only our knowledge of vocabulary and grammar rules, but also our knowledge of the world and the environment in which language is used. Consider the following combinations of words: “canola oil”, “olive oil”, and “baby oil”. All of them are what we call noun phrases and have the same form (Modifier + Noun), but the ways we interpret the first two and the last one are different. For “canola oil” and “olive oil”, we interpret them as “oil made from canola” and “oil made from olives” respectively. However, for “baby oil”, we interpret it as “oil especially made for using on babies”, rather than “oil made from babies” because our knowledge of the world tells us that we do not make oil from babies.

What these examples show is that when we put words together to make meanings and when we interpret language in actual situations of communication, we rely on the meanings of individual words and the structures or patterns in which they are combined, as well as what we think is the probable intention of the speaker/writer by drawing on our knowledge of the world and the environment in which the language is used. In other words, to be able to use language adequately and appropriately, we learn more than the speech sounds or phonemes, morphemes, vocabulary and word meanings, and grammatical structures to combine words into phrases, clauses and sentences in the language. We also learn about, for example, how we use language for a purpose, how we convey that purpose to other users of the language, and how we figure out the intended meaning which may not be transparent from the language form itself. As sub-disciplines of linguistics, pragmatics and discourse analysis focus on the latter – i.e., those aspects of meaning that depend on the communicative intentions of language users and the environment in which the language is used.

Specifically, pragmatics studies “the factors that govern our choice of language in social interaction and the effects of our choice on others” (Crystal, 1987, p. 120). Pragmatics can be referred to as the study of “speaker meaning” because it aims to understand how linguistic units relate to the people who use them (Morris, 1938) (see Chapters 8 and 9 for the key concepts commonly used in pragmatics). As illustrated in these chapters, pragmatics explains how the choice of language features depends on the communicative intent of the speaker, what he/she considers appropriate for his/her interlocutor(s) in terms of politeness and the kind of force or effect he/she intends to achieve. For example, to ask for help, the speaker may choose to say: “Would you mind helping me?” or “I need your help.” or “Help!”.

Discourse analysis, on the other hand, deals with the linguistic study of text, i.e., how linguistic units are used in actual texts to convey meanings. It focuses on uncovering meanings represented or constructed in texts, and so can be referred to as the study of “text meaning”. It points out the choice of language features made in a text and uses the presence (or absence) of certain language features as evidence to make interpretations or comments about the purpose(s) of the text, the target audience(s), the kind of social relationship (e.g., equal or different power or status) suggested between the text producer and audience, the kind of assumptions made in the text about the audience (e.g., their age, gender, ethnicity, social class, preoccupations, aspirations, etc.), the kind of knowledge about the world the audience needs to be able to fill in “what is not being said overtly, but is assumed to be known” (Gee, 2014, p. 18), and so on. In order to uncover meanings represented or constructed in texts, one of the key elements examined in discourse analysis is the social relationship between participants, or the people involved in the process of interaction and production of texts. Therefore, although the two fields are often regarded as two sub-disciplines of linguistics, a solid knowledge of pragmatics is beneficial when doing discourse analysis. In particular, knowledge of pragmatics can be helpful when analysing the choices made by speakers/writers in relation to hearers/readers when producing texts in a specific context. A sound understanding of speakers’/writers’ choices in their use of language can then facilitate a discourse analyst in interpreting meanings encoded in the texts that are produced for specific intended audience.

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