Discourse comprehension is the act of interpreting a written or spoken message by integrating the incoming information into the memory or knowledge structures of the interpreter. As such it involves social and pragmatic knowledge as well as grammatical and logical knowledge.
Consider an example from Schank and Abelson (1977): (1) “John went into a restaurant. He ordered a hamburger and coke, paid the check and left.” The statement is simple enough and comprehension of the word “check” in (1) above was probably effortless and automatic. But how does a participant in communication come to the correct meaning of the word “check”? There are other possibilities. The word (phonetic expression) “check” could have meant (a) a particular mark on a page (✓), (b) a piece of paper for depositing money into a bank, (c) to leave a hat and coat in a coatroom, (d) to restrain, (e) to examine, or (f ) a move in hockey.
People are able to arrive at the correct meaning for the word “check” because they rely on prior knowledge structures such as scripts. When you encountered the word “restaurant” in (1) above a “restaurant” script was activated that contains considerable experiential knowledge about typical roles (waiters, cooks, customers), objects (menus, tables, silverware, cash register), goals (get food on time, waitress brings check), and activities (be seated, order food, get served, pay the check). This restaurant script was the interpretive frame for the word “check”. It provided the world knowledge necessary to correctly understand the meaning of the word “check.” This world knowledge includes justifiable expectations and typical inferences. Thus, the restaurant was probably not a sophisticated and expensive gourmet restaurant because one does not usually order a hamburger and a coke in such places. That would be a justifiable inference based on pragmatic knowledge of the world, but certainly not a guaranteed truth condition.
Functionality is a first principle of discourse comprehension. Functionality means that all language accomplishes something. Its expression performs some “work”; it is language in use or language that cannot be restricted to structural forms but must be related to the purposes, goals, and designs of human affairs. Consider this conversation:
(2) Randy: “What are you up to tonight?” Sue: “I’ve got an exam tomorrow.”
Here it is apparent that the sequence is an identifiable question and answer, but there are also interpersonal and social goals being realized. We might speculate about the specific meaning of the sequence but would require more knowledge to be precise, knowledge such as history of the relationship, communicative intent, settings, cultural patterns of interaction, as well as conventional routines such as “going out with someone.” Randy’s question might be a simple and genuine inquiry, or it might serve as pre-request for information in order to avoid potential rejection from “asking Sue to go out.”
Functionality is contrasted with structural approaches, which are more concerned with language as a formal autonomous system (e.g., Chomsky 1957). Structuralists are concerned with grammar and small constituent units of language that can occur in a restricted number of arrangements. In Chomsky’s well-known example – (3) “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” – the statement is meaningless but structurally well formed. The main comprehension processes are (a) speech act assignment, (b) the coherence mechanisms that assist with tracking information, and (c) the interpretive codes used by communicators.
Speech Act Assignment
A speech act is the performative aspect of an utterance that produces action so the utterance (e.g., “I am sorry for missing the meeting”) is the genuine accomplishment of certain action (to apologize). The goal of discourse comprehension is to use real-time subjective experience to assign conventional meanings to speech acts. If a speaker says “Put the book over there” and wants it to count as an order, then the listener must be able to actually place the book in the designated location and accept the position of authority required to utter an order. The utterance is partially processed as an order because it includes an understood “you” and an imperative structure. Lexically, the utterance is simple and denotes actions “put” and a deictic pronoun (“there”) that refers to a mutually understood place in the environment. All interpreters get some assistance in assigning meaning to speech acts from deictic movements (e.g., pointing to an object), facial gestures, tone and stress, bodily movements, and interaction history.
Whether or not the interpretation of speech acts is unproblematic from one context to another is a controversy in discourse comprehension. Is an “apology” from a government official the same as from a family member? Some data (Rosaldo 1982) indicate that individual communities develop subjective differences in interpreting speech acts. These data support modifications to the analysis of speech acts by making them more sensitive to sociological and interactional constraints. Work by Labov and Fanshel (1977) is an applied example of how the nonstandard assignment of meaning to speech acts can have important implications in a therapeutic setting.
Rendering a discourse as coherent is another central task for both a producer and consumer of communication if they are going to successfully accomplish the act of comprehension. All language users develop pragmatic competence which includes the mechanisms and strategies in a language code for making sequences of messages sensible or coherent. This is an interactional achievement. There is a distinction between coherence and cohesion. Coherence refers to the general organizational patterns that lend order to discourse. Cohesion has to do with relations among surface linguistic forms. Cohesion is a tie between two linguistic forms that assists a text with its wholeness. In the following sentence the relationship between “papers” and “them” is a cohesive tie:
(4) “Bundle the papers with string. Then place them on the curb.”
The function of “them” is to refer to “papers” and makes it possible to interpret the two sentences as related. The term “them” presupposes “papers” and makes no sense otherwise.
The issues in coherence are separated into local coherence and global coherence (see Ellis 1999). Local coherence is related to cohesion and is termed “local” because the linguistic terms are properties of the text and not a larger structure. The cohesive tie in (4) above is local. Halliday and Hasan (1976) describe five major cohesive ties: reference, substitution, ellipses, conjunction, and lexical cohesion. Local cohesive devices are a natural part of the linguistic system and communicators use them to process information. Their use varies by social constraints on language. Studies by Villaume and Cegala (1988) and Ellis et al. (1994) are direct tests of the relationship between the quality of communication and cohesive devices.
Global coherence is produced by interpreters who apply a general organizing scheme to a series or sequences of statements. It is a macro framework that provides the overall management and interpretation of local connections. For example, the headline of a newspaper story provides a global frame for all of the sentences that constitute the story. After reading the headline, everything in the story will be understood within the global frame of the headline. Scripts as described in example (1) above are global coherence mechanisms that direct the comprehension of the language.
Topicality is essential to notions of global coherence and discourse comprehension. It is the primary organization principle of a message. The topic is the theme or subject matter of what is being written or talked about. Speeches, essays, paragraphs, and discourses of all types have a topic that organizes the language. The first sentence of a paragraph may be connected sensibly to the last sentence according to topicality rather than local cohesion devices. All discourses have a global semantic structure that explains the relevant information in the discourse as a whole.
Speakers and writers direct the fluid nature of topic changes and focus. Comprehending a discourse involves proper focusing and foregrounding of information. Information is focused and foregrounded when it is established in consciousness and other information is backgrounded. Line (5b) below makes sense because line (5a) foregrounds puppy (Tyler & Marslen-Wilson 1982):
(5a) “The puppy stepped on a wasp”
(5b) “He was very upset”
Line (5c) below is awkward because it is responsive to information that is not foregrounded:
(5a) “The puppy stepped on a wasp”
(5b) “He was very upset”
(5c) “It started to buzz furiously”
The skillful use of foregrounding and focus is important for producers of messages who want to assist interpreters with the task of discourse comprehension.
Discourse comprehension involves the computation on the part of interpreters of communicative function. The sequence in (2) above is understood as coherent and communicatively sensible because the assumption of rationality on the part of communicators presupposes that the participants are cooperating (Grice 1975) and Sue’s utterance in example (2) is a genuine response to the previous utterance that is expressed for an action performed in communicating.
At the highest level of generality, communicators use codes to comprehend discourse. No description of discourse comprehension would be complete if it did not account for subjective and cultural experiences of language users and how these inform the comprehension process. A code is an orientation toward the production and interpretation of language. It is a set of interpretive frames formed on the basis of individual cultural experiences and is used to understand specialized group meanings. They are powerful to the extent that they are responsive to particular subjective experiences.
Philipsen (1997) and Katriel (1986) developed a widely recognized research program on communication codes and how members of a culture share orientations toward communication. A communication or speech code is a way of speaking that is culturally distinctive and results from the unique psychology and sociology of the culture. Discourse is interpreted on the basis of the cultural knowledge of the code. Katriel’s (1986) research on dugri and musayara shows how Israeli-Jews and Arabs have ways of speaking that emerge from their respective cultures and is sometimes responsible for problems and misunderstandings. Thus, the dugri code for example is direct, pragmatic, and assertive where the musayara code is more indirect and accommodating. One must have cultural experience in order to fully comprehend the discourse of the other. These codes are a sort of blueprint shared by members of the culture. It is interpretive information acquired in the experience of the culture and not abstractly. Linguistics had tended to ignore this aspect of comprehension in favor of more abstract cognitive processing rules for language. Recent work in communication directs the focus of discourse comprehension more toward communicative competence and language in use that includes the ability to interpret language in situated cultural contexts.
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