Discourse studies is a vast, multidisciplinary, and rapidly expanding area of research, embracing a range of approaches including discourse analysis, corpus analysis, conversation analysis, interactional sociolinguistics, critical discourse analysis, genre analysis and multimodal discourse analysis. Each approach offers its own unique perspective on discourse, focusing variably on text, context or a range of semiotic modes. Together, they provide foreign language teachers and material designers with new insights into language, and are beginning to have an observable impact on published English Language Teaching (ELT) materials. This paper looks at the ways in which the four approaches with the strongest links to the ELT profession (corpus analysis, conversation analysis, discourse analysis and genre analysis) have found their way into language learning materials, and offers some suggestions on how discourse studies may influence ELT classrooms in the future.
While each of the approaches to discourse focused on in the article brings its own unique perspective to the field, it is clear that there is also a high degree of interconnectivity and overlap amongst them. This suggests that, rather than limiting ourselves to one particular methodology, it would be much more useful to see them as complementary tools in our ‘discourse toolbox’: a selection of lenses that can be combined eclectically to reveal different layers of meaning in our data. Collaborative work of this type, however, brings with it significant challenges – relinquishing ‘ownership’ of knowledge, substantial time commitments, obstructive institutional structures, trust and process issues amongst participants, the negotiation of a common interdisciplinary language, and uncertain outcomes – but, as Jan Blommaert in his book ‘Discourse’ (2005: 237) says, this is ‘a richer and more interesting field to dwell in than rigidly defined habitual orthodoxies of scientific exploration’.
Although discourse studies started out as being predominantly about text linguistics, there has been a noticeable shift in focus away from texts towards the context of production, as well as increased interest in non-textual forms of social semiotics. This trend in itself is encouraging more interdisciplinary dialogue, as researchers begin to better appreciate the fact that the complexity of social interaction, as it is played out in the real world, requires a multi-level analytical approach in order to be truly descriptive.