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Concourse 2



A dictionary definition of context will be something like:

the parts of a discourse or treatise which precede and follow a special passage and may fix its true meaning: associated surroundings, setting
(Chambers 20th Century Dictionary)

As you see, the definition is in two parts.

  1. the language around the part of special interest
  2. the general setting in which the text occurs

In the world of English language teaching, we need to distinguish a little more carefully between these two related concepts.


Context and Co-text

refers to the social setting in which language occurs
For example, the language item:
    It's cold in the bedroom
means different things in these two contexts:
Context 1: a guest standing at a hotel reception desk talking to the manager
Context 2: someone suggesting a good place to store apples
Many other language items can only be understood if the context is made clear.
refers to the language immediately surrounding the item in question which tells us its meaning.
For example, the word bark is a noun in
    The tree has silver bark
and a verb in
    I wish that dog wouldn't bark so much
Only the co-text allows us to understand which meaning of the word is the correct one to assume.

The dictionary definition covers both these meanings, but for us, there should be a difference.
Here we are concerned with context, not co-text.


Why is context important?

Wearing an angel costume would be inappropriate in all but a few social settings: fancy dress parties, dramas and carnivals are the only obvious ones.
The acceptability of the costume comes from nothing intrinsic to the person wearing it or the costume design.  It is entirely produced by the setting in which it is worn.  So it is with language.

We do not only have to show our learners how language is formed or how skills are used (usage), we need also to let them notice how it is used, by whom, where and for what purposes (real use) and it is here that context comes to our (and their) aid.
Context-free language is:


The ingredients of context

This refers to where the language is situated.  What may be appropriate and acceptable in a meeting with friends in a café may be wholly inappropriate in a business meeting or a church service.
What it may be acceptable to say in a text message to a friend will not, probably, be acceptable in a letter of application for a job.
For example, at an informal work meeting where the participants are all more or less equal in authority, it may well be acceptable for anyone to say:
    OK.  Let's get the ball rolling, shall we?
but that would not be acceptable at all in a more formal meeting being run by the boss of a department.  At that kind of meeting, most people will wait in silence until the boss starts the meeting by greeting people and thanking them for coming.
If learners are unaware of the social setting of the language, they cannot be expected to develop any knowledge of appropriacy and functional acceptability.
The level of formality of the setting will affect the way in which functions are realised, for example:
    May I just ask ...?
    Hang on!  What about ...?
and may also affect the intonation patterns people use (assertive vs. tentative), how they pronounce individual items (carefully or casually) and the lexis which is chosen (formal and precise vs. casual and imprecise).
There are four of these in all interactions but people may play multiple roles.  These four are:
  1. addressor – the person who initiates the message
  2. speaker / writer – the person who articulates / writes the message
  3. hearer / reader – the person who accepts / reads the message
  4. addressee – the intended receiver of the message
In a conversation between two people the addressor is also the speaker and the hearer is also the addressee.
However, many more complex situations are possible.  In an exchange between two people in a group, for example, one person may say something to another but the intended receiver of the message may be the whole group or certain individuals in it.
When we have a comment such as:
    Mary has asked me to find out if Jane wants to come shopping on Thursday
we may have a speaker and a hearer but the addressor (Mary) and the addressee (Jane) are absent.  That could easily happen in writing, too.
To complicate matters, of course, roles switch very rapidly in spoken discourse so addressor may become (or be) speaker at one moment and then be a hearer / addressee a second later.
For more, see the guide to turn-taking.
Power relationships
Another facet of the participants in an exchange is authority.  When you are quizzed by an immigration officer at an airport, the way questions are posed and the way you respond may be different from when a car-rental sales person is asking for the same information.
In the former case, the questioner is in charge and will see no need to be polite and deferential.  The traveller knows this and will answer politely.
In the latter case, the customer is in charge and the questions will be posed deferentially.  Answers may be much more curt and, indeed, questions may be avoided altogether.
(By the way, in neither case is the questioner the addressee of the answers.  In the first case, it is the government security people and in the second, the employee's company and insurance partner.)
To exemplify what's meant:
In the first case, the questions may be quite abrupt, such as:
    What is the reason for your visit?
and in the second case, the question will be softened to something like:
    Can you tell me the reason for your visit?
Answer forms will vary depending on perceived power relationships and in the first case it would probably be wise not to respond with
    You don't need that information
although that would be acceptable, if a little curt, in the second case.
There are naturally gradations in this from small to large power distances between the speakers / writers and hearers / readers and some cultures are characterised by large power distances so the language has been adapted to show deference in more sophisticated ways.
Intentions and purposes
The participants' aims will also form part of the context.  If, for example, the participants have no aim other than to maintain social relationships, the expression
    How are you?
may simply be phatic and not intended as a real question (as it might in a range of other languages).  However, if the questioner is seriously concerned to discover the state of the hearer's well-being, the question might be posed as
    How are you, really?
stressing the verb.
In formal meetings, as another example, there will be a socially determined format to who poses questions, who greets whom and how turns will be taken and invited (and by whom).  In other words, the intentions and roles of those present (whether it is to contribute, to inform, to learn or whatever) will determine what they say, if they say anything at all, and when they will say it.
If, say, the purpose of the manager of the meeting is to get opinions from everyone present, he or she may well nominate by name, as in, e.g.:
    What does Fred think?
and any volunteering of opinion or enquiry will normally be done tentatively as in, e.g.:
    [raised hand] I think I can provide that information.
    [raised hand] May I ask a question here?
Within this area we may also consider the tenor of the discourse and the spirit of the communicators because the tone in which an interaction is conducted is also part of the context for the language.  For example:
     I know (with stress on the pronoun and rising intonation)
is very different from
    I think I may have the answer (with stress on the modal auxiliary verb and falling intonation at the end).
Equally, in informal dialogues,
spoken with falling intonation may mean the exact opposite of
spoken with rising and excited intonation.
Brown and Levinson (1978) (drawing on Goffman (1976)) defined face as
    something that is emotionally invested and can be lost, maintained or enhanced
    (in Coulthard, 1985: 50)
The key is to understand that asking for help or demanding something of someone else threatens either the speaker's face or the hearer's face.  They are, in the literature, Face-Threatening Acts (FTAs).  Who stands to lose or gain face in an interaction is part of the context for the language.
For example, one can say:
    Get this done by Friday
but that formulation threatens the hearer's face by placing them in a subordinate role.  Therefore, the demand may be altered by:
using an inclusive pronoun:
    We need to get this done by Friday
referring to an outside force:
    The bank needs this by Friday
making the sentence passive and avoiding personal attribution of demand and duty:
    Can it be done by Friday?
acknowledging the imposition:
    I know it's a bit of a bore but can you get this done by Friday?
Requests are often made in a way that does not threaten the hearer's face so we get:
    Could I borrow just a little milk?
using borrow instead of have, and softening the request with just a little but which actually means
    Give me some milk
Invitations can work in a similar way but this time it is the speaker's face which is threatened by a refusal so invitations are often emphasised and made firmer as in:
    Do have some more
    Please do try to make it
Topic or Field of Discourse
Up to now, we have been mostly concerned with how the context of an interaction affects issues of style and how that may be realised in the language forms selected by speakers and writers.
The topic area or, in Halliday's term, the Field of Discourse also forms part of the context.
Mostly this area concerns the register in which the language exists.
For example,
    Port 20
    Please, turn a little to the left here
may actually both mean the same thing but the former is in the field of marine commands and the latter is a polite request to a driver, perhaps.
Participant roles are also important here because the level of expertise which is claimed or assumed will affect the language which is used.  A conversation between an architect and a building engineer is likely to be very different from one between the architect and the customer although both may transfer the identical information.
For more on this, see the guide to style and register.


The sources of context

Context may occasionally be provided by co-text alone for a limited range of language items but it is the social context that determines the meaning of most of what is said or written.
All the ingredients above that form the setting for language to be meaningful and comprehensible can be made clear by the use of well-chosen and engaging contexts.

In the classroom, language needs to be carefully set in context so learners can see how it is used, by whom, where and about what.  The question now is:
What sources are at our disposal to generate context?

The answer is twofold:

  1. Context may be generated from the personal worlds of the teacher and the learners
  2. Context may be generated from the outside world


The personal world

We all have two worlds:

Both can be exploited for context.

Because the physical surroundings for most learners are quite restricted (being, normally, the classroom and the institution in which it exists), opportunities for exploiting it for context are limited but should not be ignored.  For example:

and so on.  Only your and the learners' imagination is the limiter.

Experiences and memories are a much richer source and provide not only a context but a personal context which can make the language more memorable and activities more engaging.  The following can be based on learners or the teacher or both, of course.
The list of possible contexts generated from the personal memories and experiences of the people in most classrooms would fill a book but there are general categories to consider:

and so on and on.


The outside world

The outside world provides two main sources of context:

Events and stories will include everything from history-changing occurrences to trivial incidents.  They can also be factual or fictional.
Situations, too, will range from the important such as disasters and wars to the trivial and personal such as a restaurant, a classroom or a workplace.
They can both be brought into the classroom to form context for language by, for example:


What's the trick to using context?

There are two:

  1. Teaching a language differs fundamentally from teaching virtually anything else.  Teaching a language has been described as teaching backwards:
    1. In 'normal' teaching, the teacher and the learners share a language but their experiences and knowledge differ.
      The teacher's job is to use the language to impart the data and train people in how to process it.
    2. In language teaching, the teacher and the learners share much knowledge of the world, people, relationships and so on but their languages differ.  We all share contexts but have differing experiences and preferences within those contexts.
      The teacher's job is to exploit the shared experience of contexts and knowledge to teach the language.
  2. Contexts are complex and, as we saw above, include many ingredients but they will not all be important at all times to understanding the nature of the language use.
    For some targets such as everyday functions, the relationships between speakers and the formality of the setting will be critical.  Speaking to friends, speaking to strangers and speaking to people more powerful or less powerful than you will all affect the language we need to use.  Whether I select, for example:
        I wonder if you can tell me where the post office is?
    with its embedded and slightly tricky indirect question form or
        Where's the post office?
    may depend on all these factors.
    For other targets, such as appropriacy of lexical choice, the field of discourse will play a bigger role.  Speaking about one's hobby, work or leisure activities will often require mastery of a set of lexical items and grammatical forms which are specific to the topic.
        My swing's improving
        This needs to be machined to an accuracy of less than one hundredth of an millimetre
        We welcome beginner surfers to the club

    and so on are all examples of lexical or grammatical use specific to certain registers.
    The keys are to:
    1. Match the context to the strongest influences on the language choices made.
      To do that, we need to look at the analysis above to see which elements of the context are the most telling.
      Choose from:
      1. setting:
        influencing formality and who does the talking
      2. participants:
        influencing formality, roles and turn-taking strategies
      3. power relationships:
        influencing levels of politeness, disclosure and deference
      4. intentions:
        influencing the language functions we need to use to achieve our objectives
      5. face-threatening acts:
        influencing the ways in which commands, requests and invitations etc. are realised in the appropriate language forms
      6. topic or field of discourse:
        influencing our choice of lexis and grammatical form
    2. Make sure you help your learners to notice what it is about the context which determines the language choices.
      Just setting the language in a context is, naturally, very helpful but the learners also need to notice explicitly which elements of the context are determining the language forms or the skills used.  For that, again, you need to refer to the list above and may need to get the learners to identify and describe the context.
      1. That can be done with elicitation such as:
            Do these people know each other well?
            Is there someone in the group who is more powerful than the others?
            Why does she say Welcome rather than Hello?
            What does Mary want from the conversation?
            What does John want?
            How will they feel if Jane says she will not come to the party?
            What's a putter and where do you use it?

        and so on.  Eliciting the key data like this ensures that the learners are aware of the important features of the context.
      2. or through simple explanations like:
            Listen to these two old friends talking on the train.  One of them wants to ask a big favour.  How does he ask?
            This is a conversation between a policeman and a motorist after a small accident.  Watch the conversation and ...
            Henry is in charge of this meeting.  Watch and listen to how he invites people to speak and deals with interruption.

        and so on.  Supplying the data needs to be followed up by checking that it has been absorbed so a few questions need to be posed such as:
            Where are these two friends talking?  Is that a public place?
            Are the policeman and the motorist friends?
            Who is the boss?

Related guides
speaking for a more general overview of speaking skills
turn-taking for a guide to this area and more considerations of cultural appropriacy
style and register for a guide to what these are and how they are different
semantics for a distinctly more technical guide to contextualising vocabulary on using learners' schemata
the skills index for the initial plus section
the skills index for the in-service section

Brazil, D, 1997, The communicative value of intonation in English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Coulthard, M, 1985, An Introduction to Discourse Analysis, Harlow: Longman
Halliday, M A K, 1994, An Introduction to Functional Grammar: 2nd Edition, London: Edward Arnold
Halliday, M A K and Hasan, R, 1989, Language, context and text: aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press