Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Language conventions

Atkinson, D. (1991). Discourse analysis and written discourse conventions. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 11, 57-76.

I would like to share my reflections on the article. I would like to begin with the main argument of the article, which is, conventionalized language can fruitfully be studied from a multifunctional perspective. Before I go into what a multifunctional perspective entails, I would like to talk about what conventionalized language means. At least in my understanding, conventionalized language refers to pre-patterned use of language that is influenced by cognitive and social constraints that in turn affect the form, content, and function of texts utilized within a discourse community. In other words, the cognitive and social constraints, as well as historical developments, determine, at least to some extent, the constellation of discourse features that is recognizable and useful for the members of the discourse community. These constellations of features help us make sense of texts or group of texts more easily.
A related point I would like to make is that, as I see it, Atkinson situates genre studies within a broader framework, that is, conventionalized language. We could include genre analysis within this broader framework along with language variation, grammar, contrastive rhetoric, and speech events. This positioning is also one of the distinguishing features of Atkinson’s perspective.
When positioned this way, it becomes possible (or justified if you will) to investigate written discourse conventions in light of spoken discourse conventions. As a step toward this direction, Atkinson gives an overview of the underpinnings of and research done on spoken language conventions as a model or source of inspiration for studying written discourse conventions. Of course, his choice is partly due to the fact that written discourse conventions have not been explored to the extent that spoken discourse conventions have been studied. In his note four, Atkinson gives some possible reasons for this situation.
In the next section, Atkinson gives a brief overview of three theoretical approaches to the study of spoken conventionalized language: philosophical, psycholinguistic, and sociolinguistic. According to Atkinson, in the philosophical approach conventionalized spoken language is seen as a solution to a coordination problem, which is defined as “a potentially problematic interpersonal situation which, in order to be resolved to the mutual benefit of those involved, demands their coordinated effort” (p. 58).
The psycholinguistic approach seeks to understand how fluency and novelty are achieved in language use when people face two constraints—that of memorized formulaic chunks and generative structures.  If you think about it, memorized formulaic chunks are useful in reacting quickly to recurring situations, for example, greetings or opening lines. However, this approach adds a burden on our memory since we cannot possibly memorize everything. Furthermore, it cannot explain the novelty of our utterances. After all we do not just repeat what we hear. Occasionally we come up with some novel sentences.
Generative structures, on the other hand, solve the problem of cognitive load since we can produce almost limitless utterances based on limited structures by basically filling the blanks of the structure. However, it is also true that we do not actually produce limitless number of utterances. There is a limit to our novelty. If we were completely unique in our language performance we wouldn’t be able to understand each other. Since we do not employ all that is available to us by generative structures, it seems that there are other mechanisms at work that constrain our choices.
Finally, the sociolinguistic approach acknowledges that shared convention knowledge contributes to the effectiveness of communication. When we know that we share a common ground the necessity to spell out everything disappears. For example, can you imagine how life would be like if we didn’t share some knowledge? I would have to introduce myself every time we meet, I would have to explain my students how to behave in class each time we meet, I would have to explain what I mean by every word, and so on. You can imagine that we wouldn’t be able to get anything done if this was the case. Instead we use some clues that index how we contextualize a situation by some conventions. I think of this as an invitation to look at things from the same perspective. For example, if I write my classmates an email with the subject line discussion questions they will understand that this is a course related email not a personal one, that it probably has an attachment with discussion questions, that they need to read and print it before class, and that they do not need to respond. I do not have to write them to do all this because we share some knowledge.
To sum up, language conventions solve the problems posed by (1) coordination in the philosophical approach, (2) cognitive constraints in the psycholinguistic approach, and (3) contextualization in the sociolinguistic approach.  
It is perhaps understandable that the way a problem is posed influences the way a solution is sought. Thus these three approaches mentioned in the article have different foci and as an extension different research agendas. The examples given from education, text-type, cognitive schema, and genre studies research illustrate these different foci and research agendas. My limited knowledge about conventionalized language comes from different fields second language acquisition, second language writing, genre studies, and corpus linguistics. Each has its own focus and research methods. In corpus linguistics course that I took for example, I observed that when researchers study conventionalized language they look into quantifiable data and textual functions. In second language writing studies, researchers focus on either social, cognitive, or textual functions of written discourse conventions but rarely more than one in one study. In second language acquisition studies, formulaic chunks are not seen as informative about language learning compared to generative or grammar driven utterances and mostly dismissed, and in genre analysis people are more interested in textual and maybe to some extent social functions but not cognitive functions. At least this is my understanding of the treatment of conventionalized language in these fields. This brings me to the multifunctional perspective Atkinson proposes which advocates the consideration of all three functions.
The second part of the article is devoted to developing a multifunctional perspective to the study of written discourse conventions. Atkinson begins with defining a written discourse convention as “a socially ratified solution to a past or present problem of written communication” (p. 61). Next, he elaborates on what he means by a multifunctional perspective. For him a multifunctional perspective is one that accounts for cognitive, social, and textual functions that written discourse conventions serve.
First, written discourse conventions serve two cognitive functions: processing and storage. To give an example, when we have written discourse conventions such as titles in research papers, it is much easier to process texts since part of the processing, in this case labeling, is already done for us. Similarly, the title also tells us where to store this information. Another advantage of titles is that we can easily choose to read only the abstract, or only the findings. Also we do not have to remember where we can find the findings section. When we see the article in front of us we can easily locate the findings section without memorizing the page number of the findings. If you think about it even the page number is a very useful tool in this regard. Imagine if you had to read the whole article each time you needed specific information.
Second, the social functions written discourse conventions serve are construction and maintenance of discourse communities, which suggests written discourse conventions can be studied to investigate discourse communities since they reflect the reality constructed and circulated within discourse communities. This implies that discourse communities reflect the assumptions, ideologies, genre knowledge, and epistemologies of discourse communities in their written discourse conventions. Moreover, probably these conventions not only reflect the cultures of discourse communities but also constitute them.
For example, you can imagine that if you were a lawyer you would have a specific way with words that would reflect your assumption that words in legal documents are binding. So you would write documents that would prevent any gaps that would allow third parties to take advantage of your client. If you were designing a commercial or if you were a politician however you would feel more free to make claims or generalizations even if you knew that you were not likely to fulfill your promises. Thus discourse conventions are informative in understanding the cultures surrounding lawyers or politicians. Perhaps more importantly, these very conventions make being a lawyer or politician possible. After all, what is a lawyer without laws or legal documents, what is a politician without speeches and debates?
One of the social functions of written discourse conventions I can think of, which is not mentioned in the article, is identifying the author of a specific text as a specific type of person—an insider, an outsider, a knowledgeable person, a marginal figure, a revolutionary, an ignorant person, a nonnative speaker, an experienced writer, a person who does not know what s/he is talking about, a person with this or that theoretical affiliation. This social function also clearly illustrates how indispensable convention knowledge is for people to survive in social groups.
Third, written discourse conventions have textual functions that serve as tools contributing to coherence of texts. Textual conventions help us understand what kind of a text we are dealing with, where the text begins, when a text is about to end, how it is organized and so on. According to Atkinson, these textual conventions can be studied at five levels: non-linguistic, macro rhetorical, rhetorical, phrasal-clausal, and lexical, each level contributing to the coherence of texts to different degrees. Atkinson concludes the article by reiterating his call for a sociocognitive and multifunctional study of written discourse conventions. 
I was supposed to present this article for a class I'm taking and I am sorry to say that my presentation didn't go well. I had thought a lot about the arguments so it's not because I didn't work hard. Given that my knowledge on conventionalized language was limited and after hearing that my classmates found the article a little demanding I decided to find some examples to clarify some theoretical concepts hoping that at least my classmates could find something personal to share, an example from their lives or something. But it didn't work. Five minutes into the presentation and I could tell that the audience was not with me. Asking questions and trying to make this more interactive didn't work either. The comments I got and the questions people asked made me wonder if we had read the same article in the first place. I wouldn't mind if people disagreed with me or corrected my misunderstanding if that was the issue. I would welcome different interpretations since that would give me a chance to learn something. However, it was more like speaking two completely different languages. I wish I could tell you what the comments and questions were but I don't want to make this about specific people. It seemed like I either saw something different in the article or that there was something seriously wrong with how my mind works. I didn't see the point of most of the comments or thought a person who had read the article wouldn't ask a question like that. I think the sentiment was mutual ^_^. I still don't know what the problem was. 
Did the communication fail because of what I said or was it because how I presented my ideas? I thought I could assume some common knowledge since this was a class reading and everybody was supposed to read the article before coming to class. Maybe that was a mistake. Perhaps I have no audience awareness and what I find interesting is not interesting to other people. After all if I had someone I could talk to about what I think I probably wouldn't have this blog and instead go out and talk to people about them. Was it because it was an evening class and people were just tired? I just don't know.
I'm too embarrassed to ask my professor what the problem was and I don't think anybody in the class would tell me either. Actually my classmates said nice things about my presentation during the break. But actions speak louder than words and I find it hard to believe that they actually enjoyed the presentation. Why is it so difficult to get feedback about something? I have to figure out what went wrong so that I can do a better job next time but I'm totally clueless. Everybody seems to be so concerned about being politically correct and nice. I sometimes wish for a person who would say something honest 'Oh my god. Beril, what were you thinking? It was so boring I almost fell a sleep.' or 'How is what you say relevant?' 'I think you misunderstood this' or something to that effect.  
I know, I know, it's not a big deal and I'm probably taking this way too seriously. Who  cares about a class presentation anyway, right? But I cannot seem to let it go. Perhaps because it seems to be a recurring situation. Ah, these awkward silences following my comments and this feeling that people miss my point completely make me feel so lonely. I feel like I never have a conversation but either listen to someone or people think they understand what I say. But I never have a real intellectual conversation, not really. It is emotionally draining and sometimes I just want to stop trying because it is so disheartening and damn painful. At these moments of despair, I just want to shut myself down.
I really don't know what keeps me going other than mere obstinacy. I still have hope that one day I will get to know people who would get what I mean. As Goethe puts it "In this company I have, for the first time, had a real conversation, and for the first time in my life I find my own words returned to me, enriched from the mouth of another--richer, fuller, and endowed by greater import. What I had dimly sensed, suddenly became clear to me, and I learned how to see what I had thought." That's my dream anyway and I cannot think of anything in the whole world more exhilarating than this feeling (well, with the exception of being in love ^_^). I sometimes ask myself  'if this doesn't happen in grad school when/where?' As I have told you before I'm a dreamer and I hold on to my dream that such company is possible. And if I do not give up hope I will find it eventually...

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