14. communication and collaboration models


In Section 14.3.2, we discussed the highly contextual nature of the spoken word, including the use of deictic reference and indexicals, and the (officially) ungrammatical and fragmentary use of sentences. Try listening to social chat over cups of tea - collect examples of different forms of contextual utterance.


There are often objects of shared attention during social chat, perhaps a notice board, or magazines on a coffee table. These will be one obvious source of context. When students record statements such as 'I like that', they should also record whether the indexical refers to a previous utterance or to something external. They should try to observe exactly how external references are made: for example, whether people point to a notice, refer implicitly to the article someone else is reading or use the direction of their own gaze.

In a small group, students should listen particularly carefully for the use of the pronoun 'you'. Does it refer to the whole group (excluding the speaker), or to a particular person. If the latter, then how is it made explicit - eye gaze, body position? Other pronouns like 'we' or 'she' can be equally contextual.

Students should also look out for implicit context, for example 'a longer tail would improve the aerodynamics', spoken when the listener is looking at a picture of a kite. Although the sentence has no pronoun there is an implicit subject 'of the kite you're looking at'. This form of contextual statement can become arbitrarily obscure, for example as one person meets another: 'it's in your pigeon hole' - referring to an overdue report. As students become more adept they can listen more carefully, looking for the shift in conversational focus, and breakdowns where the context is not successfully negotiated.

Other exercises in this chapter

ex.14.1 (ans), ex.14.2 (ans), ex.14.3 (tut), ex.14.4 (tut)

all exercises for this chapter