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Topic 3 – The communication process. Language functions. Language in use. Negotiation of meaning

The dictionary definition of communication is “the imparting or exchange of information by speaking, writing or by using some other medium among people”. This process constitutes the basis of this topic. After exploring the process of communication, I will deal with the various functions of language. This will lead me on to language in use and finally the negotiation of meaning.

I will begin by looking at the communication process. There is more to communication than just one person speaking and another one listening. As defined before, communication is the exchange and negotiation of information between at least two individuals. However, we differentiate verbal and non-verbal, written and oral, formal and informal, and intentional and unintentional communication. The information we communicate is never fixed; it is constantly changing and qualified by such factors as further information, context, choice of language forms and non-verbal behaviour. So, communication involves the continuous evaluation and negotiation of meaning on the part of the participants.

I would like to distinguish between verbal and non-verbal communication. Verbal communication is carried out by means of language. We can’t forget that language is an essential tool for communication. Examples of verbal communication are writing a letter, having a conversation or watching a play. However, language is not the only way of communicating. Gestures, facial expressions, body language, touch and so on are other means of communication that should be taken into account, and which are together referred to as non-verbal communication. Throughout this topic I am going to concentrate mostly on verbal communication.

When a communicative event takes place, certain assumptions can be made. Firstly, there is a reason for communicating (orally or in a written way). In a communicative exchange, there are two basic kinds of speech roles: that of giving and that of demanding. The thing given or demanded may be something linguistic such as information or an opinion, or it may be something non-linguistic, some type of goods or services. The speaker or writer selects the appropriate or necessary items from his/her language store to express that purpose. As for the listener or reader, it can be assumed s/he is interested in the speaker’s communicative purpose and is able to process a varied selection of language. Moreover, in order for communication to be effective, the message has to be perceived and have the same meaning for the receiver than for the issuer.

Taking all the previous aspects into account we can point out which the features of communication are:

  • It is a form of social interaction, and it is normally acquired and used in such an interaction.
  • It always has a purpose, which is to communicate.
  • It involves a high degree of unpredictability and creativity, and therefore successful communication should involve a reduction of uncertainty on behalf of the participants.
  • It involves verbal and non-verbal language, such as gestures and body language.

There have been many, sometimes conflicting attempts to classify the main functions of language (macrofunctions) and the elements of communication. The theory I am going to follow is one of the clearest and most influential, which was formulated by the linguist Roman Jakobson (1960), and further developed by Dell Hymes (1962). (The terms used here are based on both accounts, without exactly following either). I am going to begin by identifying the elements of communication:

· THE ADDRESSER is the person who originates the message. This is usually the same as the person who is sending the message, but not always, as in the case of messenger, spokespeople and town criers.

· THE ADDRESSEE is the person to whom the message is addressed. This is usually the person who receives the message, but not necessarily so, as in the case of intercepted letters, bugged telephone calls, and eavesdropping.

· THE CHANNEL is the medium through which the message travels: sound waves, marks on paper, telephone wires or word processor screens.

· THE MESSAGE FORM is the particular grammatical and lexical choices of the message.

· THE TOPIC is the information carried in the message.

· THE CODE is the language or dialect used (Swedish, Yorkshire English…)

· THE SETTING is the social and physical context.

In Jacobson’s model, each of the elements of the communication process are associated with one of the six macro-functions of language he proposed. We are going to analyse them.

· Imagine the sentence “I am very happy that Tom Cruise is coming to the party”. It centres upon the addresser, who communicates his inner states and emotions. This type of macro-function is known as THE EMOTIVE FUNCTION.

· Imagine the sentence ”Shut up and do your homework!”. Attention is focused upon the addressee, seeking to affect his behaviour. This function is known as THE DIRECTIVE FUNCTION.

· Take a sentence like “Clementine, can you hear me? Are you still on the phone?” These types of sentences serve to open the channel or to check that the channel is working for social or practical reasons. Speech is used not to convey thoughts but to create ties of union by mere exchange of words. This type of macro-function focuses on the channel and it is called THE PHATIC FUNCTION. Phatic communication is speech for the sake of social context. Greetings are part of it, since they serve to start conversations, setting the tone and helping establish the relationship between the speakers.

· Advertising slogans like “Beanz means Heinz”, “Revilla, ¡qué maravilla! or tongue-twisters show that the particular form chosen is the essence of the message, that is, the form is more important than the message itself. This type of function centres upon the message form and is called THE POETIC FUNCTION.

· Sentences such as “The earth turns around the sun” are used to carry information. They focus on the topic and this use is known as THE REFERENCTIAL FUNCTION.

· A sentence like “What does this word mean?” or “This bone is known as the femur” focuses attention upon the code itself, to clarify or negotiate it. This function is known as THE METALINGUISTIC FUNTION.

· Finally, the sentences “Let’s start the lecture” or “Right” are used to create a particular kind of communication. They focus on the context and develop the function called THE CONTEXTUAL FUNCTION.

Related to the functions of language is the notion of functional development. When a crying baby realises that by controlling her cries and producing them at will rather than automatically, she can influence the behaviour of her parents, she has progressed from the emotive to the directive function. Phatic communication also begins very early. The poetic function too is apparent at an early stage: when young children latch on to a phrase and repeat it endlessly, without conveying any information. The referential function gains its prominence only at a later stage, and the metalinguistic function also comes later; these are the functions on which a considerable amount of attention is lavished at school. Surprisingly, considering this course of development, a good deal of foreign language teaching begins with the metalinguistic function, by explicitly stating the rules of grammar.

If we accept this categorization of language into a small number of macrofuntions, we might then go on to subdivide each function and specify more delicate categories or microfunctions. A breakdown of the directive function for example may look something like this:

clip_image001 Questions requests for action

clip_image002 Orders requests for information

clip_image003clip_image004clip_image005Directive function Requests requests for help

Pleas requests for sympathy


It is easy to imagine a similar division of any of the other six macrofunctions, resulting in a list of functions used as the basis of functional language courses. Functional courses set out to list the purposes for which students might wish to use language, and then to teach them to do so.

Jacobson and Hymes’ theory was used as the basis for future theories on the functions of language. Whilst linguists have sought to understand how, as speakers, people are able to produce an infinite number of sentences given a finite set of rules, philosophers have tried to explain how an infinite number of sentences may reflect a finite set of functions. These theories belong to the field of semantics. One of the most important ones is known as speech act theory. Philosophers such as Austin (1962) and Searle (1969) argued that utterances could be classified into a set of speech act functions. They reasoned that since the number of things people do with words is limited, people ought to be able to assign functions to utterances. Hence, people do not only produce utterances containing grammatical structures and words, they perform actions via those utterances, which are generally called speech acts such as apology or request. The speaker and hearer are usually helped in this process by the circumstances surrounding the utterance. These utterances, including others, are called the speech event. It is also necessary to bear in mind that speech is never completely context free due to factors such as status, age, gender, and so on, which determine social constraints.

Regarding speech acts, the action performed by producing an utterance will consist of three related acts. There is a locutionary act, which is the basic act of utterance, or producing a meaningful linguistic expression. Mostly we do not just produce well-formed utterances with no purpose. We form an utterance with some kind of function in mind. This is the second dimension, or the illocutionary act. An example is I’ve just made some coffee. I might utter it to make a statement, an offer, or for some other communicative purpose. This is known as the illocutionary force of the utterance. Moreover, we create an utterance with a function intending it to have an effect. This effect is the perlocutionary act. Depending on the circumstance, you will utter an utterance on the assumption that the hearer will recognize the effect you intended, for example to account for the wonderful smell of the coffee or to get the hearer to drink some. This is known as the perlocutionary effect. Then, the same utterance or locutionary act can have different illocutionary and perlocutionary forces.

One of the most widely used taxonomies of speech act types is that proposed by Searle (1976). There are 5 types of general functions performed by speech acts:

  • Directives (Requests). Those speech acts that speakers use to get someone else to do something. They are commands, orders, requests, suggestions; positive or negatives. Some verbs include: suggest, prohibit, order… for example: “Don´t touch that!” The imperative and polite imperative are usually taught in foreign language teaching. The relationship between the roles of the speaker and addressee acts as a constraint and if these constraints are ignored or unknown, offence may be taken.
  • Commissives. Those kinds of speech acts that speakers use to commit themselves to some future action. They express what the speaker intends. They are promises, threats, refusals, pledges… Commissives are also language and culture bound differing across status, situation and according to some gender. Some verbs used are: guarantee, swear, promise…. An example is: “I’ll be back”

· Representatives. A speaker expresses his/her belief that the propositional content of the utterance is true, so modality is an important element here. He may express an attitude of belief using several types of acts: asserting, predicting, describing, advising… Some verbs include: affirm, advise, suggest… for example: “the earth is flat”.

· Expressives. Also called “evaluatives”, they are utterances that have an expressive function, stating what the speaker feels. They express psychological states and can be statements of pleasure, pain, likes, dislikes, joy or sorrow. They are about the speaker’s experience. Some verbs include: greet, apologise, compliment… for example, “Congratulations!” Many of the stereotypes regarding cultures are bound up with expressives.

· Declaratives and Performatives. The issuer informs objectively about the external reality or about his/her ideas about it. They, when uttered, bring about a new state of being, for example when a priest says, “I pronounce you man and wife” the status of the couple changes. The person who utters it must have the power to do so.

The above five speech acts can be described as direct speech acts since there is a match between sentences meaning and speaker meaning, i.e. that the form of the utterance coincides with its function. However, much of what people say is not direct. People often use statements to make requests and even to give orders. For instance, the statement “Today there is a nice film on, isn’t there?” according to Searle would be a representative. However, the listener might also attach an extra, indirect meaning, such us “Can you switch on the TV?” In this case it is performing an indirect speech act, when there is an indirect relationship between a structure and a function. In English, indirect speech acts are generally associated with greater politeness than direct speech acts.

Now let’s have a look at language in use. To understand language use we need to look at the propositions a sentence produces, that is, what is talked about in an utterance and the illocutionary acts performed through the expression of those propositions, which involve doing and not just saying something. For example people promise, warn or invite. Propositions and illocutionary acts do not occur in isolation but combine to form what is termed discourse (stretches of language perceived to be meaningful, unified and purposive). The propositions expressed are linked to what has gone before by means of linguistic clues which act as markers to guide us through the discourse, i.e. “cohesion”. The illocutionary acts performed by the propositions also fit together, that is, they are “coherent”.

Communication depends on co-operation to function smoothly and this entails making certain assumptions. I assume a speaker/writer intends what s/he says to be informative and relevant. Moreover meaning is not always explicitly stated but has to be inferred. We also learn that different linguistic elements occur with certain frequency, and that discourse has common patterns. All this knowledge constitutes “common sense” conventions or a set of basic rules. People find out about these conventions through their experience of language use.

Discourse can often be unclear or ambiguous in which case participants are required to negotiate what meaning they are conveying e.g. a warning or a threat. This process, that is, the negotiation of meaning, is the subject of my last section. Problems of communication affect us all in many aspects of day-to-day living, and can cause serious trouble. It is incredibly easy to be unintentionally misunderstood, or to speak ambiguously or vaguely. To make communication successful is difficult. An excellent example of difficult communication is the doctor-patient relationships, where most patients fin it difficult to describe their symptoms, whereas for doctors the problem is to formulate a diagnosis in words which the patient will understand. Within this interaction, there is a need and a wish for mutual understanding.

When communicating, speakers often experience considerable difficulty when their resources in their foreign or native language are limited. A major feature of conversation involving L2 learners is that the learner and native speaker together strive to overcome the communicating difficulties which are always likely to arise as a result of the learner’s limited L2 resources. This has become known as the negotiation of meaning. On the part of the native speaker, this involves the use of strategies and tactics. Strategies are conversational devices used to avoid trouble; examples are relinquishing topic control, selecting salient topics, and checking comprehension. Tactics are devices for repairing trouble; examples are topic switching and requests for clarification. Other devices such as using a slow pace, repeating utterances, or stressing key words can serve as both tactics and strategies. The learner also needs to contribute to the negotiation of meaning, however, and he can do so by giving clear signals when he has or not understood and, most important, by refusing to give up. The result of the negotiation of meaning is that particular types of input and interaction result. In particular, it has been hypothesized that negotiation makes input comprehensible and in this way promotes L2 acquisition.

To sum up, this topic has focused on the communication process and I have analysed some aspects involved in it. I began by talking about the main characteristic of the communication process. Once this was clear, I discussed the main elements of the communication and its relation with macrofunctions. Then I dealt with the functions of language analysing the speech act theory and the five main speech acts established. After this, I concluded my topic with the language in use and the negotiation of meaning. As a final word, I would like to say that communication is a very complex phenomenon involving a number of different variables, and that is complex to make generalizations about it. The role of context is essential when analysing the meaning conveyed by any communicative act.

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