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Levels of language

Discourse, text and wording.

Language operates on many levels, and once we’ve become fluent, it becomes quite invisible – except when a new word comes up, or something slightly different or inaccurate about a grammatical pattern. But language is more than a bunch of words and some rules of grammar, it’s the stuff of our private thinking and many of the social activities we engage in every day. When it comes to doing a literature review, language is literally everything. We might be engaging in various different purposes as we read and write, but they are all linguistic activities.

Writing a literature review is challenging, and interesting, because there are multiple levels of activity going on at once. As we collect material and read it carefully, and write notes to better understand it, we work out what we think, by paraphrasing and comparing what others have written, and we start to conceive and plan the shape of a new text – our own discussion of the body of literature we have gathered. Through formulating questions and articulating points, the purpose and shape of paragraphs becomes clearer, and with a sense of those big things emerging, we can pay attention to the detail of wording and refining a text that someone else will want to read.

An academic discipline is a ‘discourse’ – a particular way of knowing and doing and writing that is recognizable as one discipline and not another. Academic discourse, and the literature on a particular topic, and the specific ways particular communications are performed, are ways of looking at linguistic activity at macro scale. At a more micro scale, we might talk about language in terms of the difference it makes to begin a sentence one way rather than another, the choice of words used to represent something, or how one bit of a text connects to others. From either perspective, the ‘content’ of communication is not separable from the language resources chosen to create it. There is a strong, functional relationship between what happens at sentence level and the shape of the whole text and its purpose in a particular context. The clearer the shape of the whole is before drafting, the easier it is to draft and edit text.

It can be difficult to talk about language in higher education, because there is an expectation of fluency, and a focus on new information that often makes us a bit blind to how texts we are reading and trying to write are actually constructed. There is a general attitude in universities that education is about the fields of knowledge only – the ‘content’. Drawing a lot of attention to the medium of communication and how it works can seem a bit strange or unnecessary to some. But if we observe closely the actual processes people engage in when they read and write complex texts, it comes to look more like a convenient fiction to imagine that ‘language’ is learned in school, and everyone in tertiary level education is (or should be) fluent and accurate in all their various uses of a language, at every level.

Another way of looking at it is that we’re all learning more language all the time, from birth to death, and a university is the very place we should discuss the nature of it – everywhere and all the time. Especially when so much education all around the world is being conducted in a language that most learners have not grown up with. The more we openly talk about language, and how every single choice we make at sentence level relates to choices being made at text level, the better.

Conversation starter

  • Do you think of language as words and rules of grammar, or as the discursive stuff of human life?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong