Paper On Spoken Discourse In Professional Contexts English Language Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.


It is increasingly acknowledged that for linguistics "an understanding of the structures and processes of conversation is … fundamental; it is essential to the understanding of language" (Schiffrin 1990, p10). For socialization, conversation is undoubtedly the primary domain where all members of a community participate. Hence, it is important to discover the nature and organization of conversation. The aim of conversation analytic research is to describe and explicate the competences that speakers use in daily conversation. This paper critically analyzes and interprets a salient feature in the text ---- the organization and flow of the text.

The spoken discourse was selected from an American reality television show called "The apprentice". It is hosted by the real estate magnate, Donald Trump. The contestants compete in an elimination-style competition for a contract of running one of Trump's companies. The transcription is an extract from one of the episodes.

Features of register

Martin (2001) suggests that field refers to the content of the context, tenor refers to the roles of the participants in an interaction and mode refers to the channel of communication. The field of the text is the board meeting where the hosts and the participants discussed the problems of the losing team. The field involves mental process which can be demonstrated by verbs "hate', "like" and "aware"; verbal process which can be illustrated by verbs "talked" and "say". The mode is face-to-face conversation which allows spontaneous responses and overlapping. The tenors are the three hosts and several women participants of the reality show. The hosts have higher status than the participants. This relationship will affect the rules of talk and hence turn-taking since turn-taking depends upon the context of the talk and the nature of the social relationship between the tenors.

This paper is concerned with two major issues: turn-taking and back-channel signal.

Part 1: Turn-taking

Gumperz (1982) states that "communication is a social activity requiring the coordinated efforts of two or more individuals" (p. 1), and that "speakers must enlist others' cooperation and actively seek to create conversational involvement"(p. 206) to create meaningful dialogue. The underlying principles of turn-taking were first described by sociologists Harvey Sacks, Emanuel A. Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson in "A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation," in the journal Language, December 1974. It is concerned with the tacit rules which regulate the taking up by speakers of the running topic and hence the change over from speaker to speaker. Sacks observed that the central principle that speakers follow in taking turns is to avoid gaps and overlap in conversation. The study of turn taking includes two main areas: turn constructional component, turn allocational component or turn taking rules.

Turn constructional component

The Turn constructional component describes out of which turns are fashioned. These basic units are called turn constructional units (TCUs). These units are grammatically, pragmatically, semantically, intonationally correct units. While syntax ("grammar") is a very important clue for listeners in "predicting" up-coming TRP's, intonation plays an even more important part. Typically one TCU has a falling intonational curve as in the following:

Turn allocational component /Turn taking rules

The completion of a TCU results in a transition relevance place (TRP) where a new speaker might begin speaking. Rod Gardner (1994) points out that a new speaker knows it is appropriate to take the turn, "as a range of co-occurring factors such as falling intonation, grammatical structure of a completed sentence, posture and gaze".

The turn taking rules are as follows:

Rule 1. If the current speaker selects another speaker, that speaker must speak next.

There are several speaker selection techniques that current speakers can use to select next speaker, such as gaze, posture, use of address term, and directing questions to particular interactants.

Turn 3 Trump: Jennifer, you are leader. = =So what do you say about that?

In the above example, Trump has selected Jennifer as the next speaker both by the use of address term and by formulating a question.

Rule 2. If the current speaker does not select another speaker, someone may self-select as next speaker.

Turn 6 Trump: But the men went out and hired cleaning people. They were refreshed. You weren't. You were tired. You just didn't do the job.

Turn 7 Carolyn: I will tell you what I think you went wrong…

In turn 6, Trump commented on the women participants' performance. As the current speaker, he did not select the next speaker. As a result, Carolyn self-selects herself as the next speaker and she continued to proof Trump's comment on the women participants.

Rule 3. If nobody self selects, the current speaker may continue.

This can also be demonstrated in the text:

Turn 3. Trump: Jennifer, you are leader. = =So what do you say about that?

Turn 4. Jennifer C: = =Yes, I am.

Turn 5. Jennifer C: In regard to sleeping……

After Jennifer gave her response to the host (turn 4), she then continued to elaborate her answer (turn 5) and therefore be the next speaker.

Part 2: Back-channel signals

In this section, the paper focuses on back-channel signals which are rich in the text.

According to R. Macaulay1, "We . . . show we are listening and do not wish to interrupt by giving back-channel signals, such as yes, uh-huh, mhm, and other very short comments. " Each of these tokens is functioning distinctively. In the following, their characterization and uses will be examined.

Mm hm

Turn 31. Trump: Jennifer, here's the story. You can choose two, or you can choose three to come back into the board room with you.

Turn 32. Jennifer: mm hm

Turn 33. Trump: What would you rather do?

The two bisyllabic tokens mm hm have fall-rise intonation. They serve the function as expecting the other speaker to continue. Turn 33 is a good example to illustrate this. In turn 31, Trump asked Jennifer to choose two or three participants to go back into the board room. Jennifer answered with mm hm suggesting her incompletion and passed the turn to Trump again.


Turn 53. Trump: What do you think, Bill?

Turn 54. Bill: I think Jen need to lead more by example. And not just stand at the corner and delegate. She didn't do anything

Turn 55. Trump: Ok. Robin, let them in.

According to Beach (1993), "ok is used frequently when there is in some sense or other, a change in activity, where there is a shift is focus from doing one thing to doing another". In the above example (Turn 55), "ok" functions as a "change of activity". In turn 53, Trump asked Bill's opinion. After hearing Bill's view, Trump moved on to the next and he asked Robin to let the participants into the board room.

However, "ok" can be used differently and acts as a response to a question or imperative. In the following example, Jennifer used "ok" meaning she promised not to disrupt Bill.

Turn 46. Bill: = =Don't disrupt me…Please.

Turn 47. Jennifer: ok.


Turn 43. Jennifer: = =right…I agree. .

Beach (1993) suggests that "right is a newsmarker. It claims something like 'I have registered what you have said and understood it, and I have fitted it in to the ongoing talk". In Turn 43, Jennifer showed that she understood the previous speaker. Moreover, she agreed with that. It is different from "ok" since "ok" carries a meaning as "now I am ready to change the topic".

Gestures as back-channel signals

J. Cassell2 points out that "our face plays an important role in the communication process". A smile can express happiness, be a polite greeting, or be a back-channel signal. Some facial expressions are linked to the syntax structure of the utterance: eyebrows may raise on an accent and on non-syntactically marked questions. Gaze and head movements are also part of the communicative process. This paper continues to investigate the application of gestures as back-channel signals in the spoken discourse.


Turn 13 Trump: [Jennifer nodding] Why are you saying yes? = =Were you acknowledging that you didn't' do well?

In turn 13, Jennifer nodded her head. Trump assumed her nodding as her agreement and hence he asked Jennifer why she said yes.

Head shaking

Turn 68. Jennifer: Ok. ..From the last task to now, I don't know what happened with her personality. Elizabeth was on the verge of a little breakdown.

Elizabeth: [Elizabeth shaking head] That's not true.

The above example clearly shows that Elizabeth' head shaking was in sync with her speech. She expressed her disagreement by both gesture and speech.


Turn 60. Jennifer: For everything I tried to implement, she would get in the way, tried to undermine, and truly wreak-havoc.

Turn 61. Stacy: [Stacy frowning] This draws the line. I mean she is bringing me in for personal reasons. = =I am completely aware of that.

Stay's frowning was associated to her disagreement to Jennifer's comment. Her frowning clearly expressed her attitude towards Jennifer. From the above examples, it is suggested that negative meanings were linked head shaking and frowning.

The above examples suggest that gesture and speech are co-expressive and complementary channels in the act of speaking. In conversations, participants produce some gestures that are intended to better convey their meaning or intentions.


This study has revealed that turn-taking theoretically contribute to an understanding of how language is constituted and used in real, practical settings that speakers routinely encounter in their community. On the other hand, gesture and speech are part of our human language system. They are co-expressive and complementary. While speech carries the major load of symbolic presentation, gesture provides the imagistic content. (1614 words)