What do we actually ‘see’ when we observe a picture or a scene, or watch an event unfold? How do we solve complex problems, and what are the steps of thought that we go through? How can we learn about such thoughts, as we cannot access people’s minds directly? Questions such as these have a lot to do with our everyday life, and they are quite relevant to many fields in cognitive science as well as applied research, for example design cognition or pedagogy. Cognitive Discourse Analysis (CODA) is a methodology that helps identifying people’s thoughts in a systematic way. People are asked to speak out lout what they’re thinking; their language is transcribed, and analysed in depth. Besides the (often quite revealing) content of what people are saying, the features of their language (how they say it) point to underlying concepts and aspects that the speakers themselves are not necessarily aware of: their focus of attention, things taken for granted or perceived as new, levels of granularity, conceptual perspective, and so on.
CODA uses linguistic insights to analyse verbal data collected in relation to cognitively challenging tasks. When formulating their thoughts, speakers draw in systematic ways from their general repertory of language to express their current concepts. Their choices in relation to a cognitively demanding situation or scenario can reveal crucial aspects of their underlying conceptualisations, shedding light on how people solve complex problem solving tasks, as well as how they describe complex problems or situations.
As a simple example consider a route description. The utterance ‘Turn right at the shopping mall’ shows that the speaker has a concept of a unique shopping mall that distinguishes it from other buildings in the environment, and can therefore be referred to by a definite article and used as a landmark to anchor a direction change. The formulation ‘turn right’ also reveals the underlying perspective (egocentric as perceived by the traveller, rather than compass based). In these and other ways, linguistic choices can reflect crucial aspects about the speakers’ conceptualisations. This provides a useful pathway to access cognition, drawing on knowledge about relevant features of language supported by grammatical theory, cognitive linguistic semantics, and other linguistic findings. In situations of communication (for example to complete a joint task or discuss a rationale for action), the different perspectives and conceptualisations of the speakers are flexibly negotiated in dialogue.