The Application of Schema Theory within Discourse Analysis

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Jul. 2005, Volume 3, No.7 (Serial No.22) US-China Foreign Language, ISSN1539-8080, USA

The Application of Schema Theory within Discourse Analysis
Xiao Zhuge* Jinhua Institute of Education
Abstract: Researches on discourse analysis have been broadly conducted from various perspectives in
linguistics. Many of them focus on analyzing the discourse with respect to cohesion, coherence and the
co-operative principle. This paper, however, attempts at discourse coherence and the understanding of
conversational implicature through the application of schema theory in making discourse analysis.
Key words: discourse analysis schema theory coherence conversational implicature
1. Introduction
In the study of language, more attention has been drawn to the way how language is used, rather than what its
components are. People are, in effect, asking language-users interpret what other language-users intend to convey
when carrying further investigation on how to understand what speakers mean, despite what they say and whether
they successfully take part in the complex activity. From this perspective, researches on discourse analysis are of
vital importance. Practically, a number of analyses of discourse behavior have been conducted recently. While
most of them mainly focus on interpreting the basic features such as discourse cohesion, coherence, semantic
reference and the co-operative principle or on analyzing their function to the discourse, this paper attempts to
arrive at the semantic coherence and the perfect understanding of the conversational implicature by means of
background knowledge---the application of schema theory within the discourse analysis.
2. Some Influential Factors in the Study of Discourse
Then, what are the crucial elements in making discourse analysis? To analyze a discourse, we should first of
all take its basic features into consideration, which involve cohesion, coherence, semantic reference and
conversational implicature, etc. The following factors play important roles in comprehending a discourse.
2.1 Cohesion and coherence
As we all know that texts must have a certain structure, depending on factors different from those required in the
structure of a single sentence. These factors play crucial roles on the linkage of texts, including reference, substitution,
ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion (Halliday & Hasan, 1976). Take the following sentences for example:
a. Two boys stood near a jewelry’
s shop.
b. Two boys saw a man break a window of a jewelry’
s shop and steal all the watches.
c. Two boys took a man with several watches in his hand for a thief.
d. Two boys ran after a man with several watches in his hand.
The sentences can be considered independent of each other rather than a cohesive passage. By means of
connective devices, however, a concise and cohesive text can be achieved as follows:

* Xiao Zhuge (1973-), female, M.A, lecturer of Foreign Language Department, Jinhua Institute of Education; Research fields:
cross-cultural communication, pragmatics; Address: Foreign Language Department, Jinhua Institute of Education, 673#, Renmin
East Rd., Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, P.R.China; Postcode: 321000; Tel: 0579-3024045, 13575737401(M); E-mail: [email protected]

The Application of Schema Theory within Discourse Analysis
Two boys stood near a jewelry’
s shop. They saw a man break the shop window and steal all the watches. They
ran after him, because they took him for a thief. Hence, cohesion is one of the most prominent features of texts.
However, cohesion by itself would not be sufficient to enable us to make sense of what we read though it
may be crucial in our judgments on whether something is well-written or not in the analysis of discourse. It is
some other factor---coherence that leads us to distinguish the connected texts.
Coherence does not exist in language, but in people. It is people who try to arrive at an interpretation which is in
line with their experience of the way the world is (Yule, 1996). In dealing with a discourse within which a set of
sentences superficially appear irrelevant to each other, we would have to create meaningful connections which are not
explicitly expressed by the words and sentences to make it coherent and understandable. Here is another good example:
A: That’
s the telephone.
B: I’m in the bath.
A: O.K.
To well-understand this fragment of discourse without cohesive ties, language users must have a lot of
knowledge of how conversational interaction works and share some background knowledge. These three
sentences have no relations at all if we analyze them only on the surface level of words. However, if we analyze
the dialogue by means of context schema theory, we can easily see the relationship among the three sentences. A
asks B (wife) to answer the phone, B’
s answer is not description of an action but implies that B herself can not
answer the phone and that she hopes A answers it. A’
s reply shows that he accepts B’
s request.
2.2 The notion of the co-operative principle and the conversational implicature
Grice has made the cooperative principle explicit by subdividing it into a set of conversational maxims:
a. The maxim of quantity
b. The maxim of quality
c. The maxim of relation
d. The maxim of manner
The conversation would be unambiguous and comprehensive in most cases by abiding by the cooperative
principles. Otherwise, mutual communication would be hindered or even halted. On the other hand, it is possible
to infringe any of the maxims to arise the most interesting conversational implicature, which is taken to be more
important (Grice, 1975). Consider the following conversational fragment:
Tom: Are you coming to the birthday party tonight?
Jane: I’ve got an exam tomorrow.
On the surface, Jane’
s statement is seemingly irrelevant to Tom’
s question. Yet Tom will immediately
interpret what Jane has said as meaning ‘No’, because Tom shares some background knowledge about exams,
birthday party and studying. Investigating how we use our background knowledge to accomplish interpretations of
what we hear and read is a crucial part of doing discourse analysis.
3. The Great Impact of Background Knowledge within the Discourse Analysis
3.1 The notion of background knowledge
From the above discussions, it is not controvertible that texts become easier if they correspond to the prior
world. Hudson demonstrates the significance of background knowledge in the discourse analysis by showing that
schemata can exceed language proficiency as a factor in comprehension. This previously acquired knowledge is

The Application of Schema Theory within Discourse Analysis
called the reader’
s background knowledge. Then what is the interpretation of schema?
There are some different versions of interpretation of the concept of schema. A schema is a structure in
semantic memory that specifies the general or expected arrangement of a body of information (Wolfson, 1989).
According to George Yule (1996), a schema is a general term for a conventional knowledge structure which exists
in memory. Though somewhat different in forms, they share something in common. Schemata are the previously
acquired knowledge structures.
In interpreting what we experience and what we hear or read about, we have many schemata, which
contribute to understanding a discourse completely. For instance, if you hear someone describe what happened
one day ‘in the grocery store’, you don’
t have to be told what can be normally found there. You already have a
schema (many stands, various kinds of vegetables and fruits, sellers and customers and other
conventional features). This schema helps you better comprehend the given situation.
If in the schema, a series of conventional actions take place, which is the dynamic schema, known as script.
In speaking of ‘going to the cinema’, we have versions of a ‘seeing a film’
script, which can activate to make
sense of discourse. For instance, after work he took off his uniform and put on his suit. He ran to the canteen for a
snack, and then telephoned his girl friend to meet at the cinema gate at six. He was a bit nervous as well as excited
at making the first date. One the basis of our ‘cinema’
script, we would be able to say a number of things about the
scene and events briefly described in the short phrase.
The schema theory thinks that comprehending a text is an interactive process between the reader’
background knowledge and the text. The reader’
s prior knowledge guides him to link his exciting knowledge to
the new world so as to reach a deeper understanding of the discourse.
3.2 The application of schema theory
3.2.1 Schema theory-based coherence in discourse analysis
Above all, think carefully about the following instructions:
Fill measure cup to line and repeat every 2 to 3 hours.
No further details are provided, but we see clearly what it means without ambiguity. The reason is that the
schema of taking syrup enables us to make the fragment of information comprehensible. According to Mr. Hu, it
is not necessarily the case that no connector implies any connective relation within a text (Hu, 1994). Actually
there exist two types of coherence, i.e. explicitness and implicitness. For the former, it is apparent that the
discourse we are analyzing is coherent. While as for implicitness, our schema of a certain event makes great
contribution to arriving at the coherence of the discourse. In terms of the schema theory, the process of
interpretation is guided by the principle that every input is mapped against some existing schema and that all
aspects of the schema must be compatible with the input information. Thus we can make the seemingly incoherent
text comprehensive.
3.2.2 Applying schema theory to conversational implicature
The principle of schema theory results in two basic models of information processing called bottom-up and
top-down processing. The top-down approach has been advanced in second language reading and in this view, not
only the reader is an active participant, making predictions and processing information, but also everything in the
s prior experience such as background knowledge plays a significant role in the process. The role of
background knowledge in discourse analysis has been formalized as the schema theory, which is one of its
fundamental factors in the text. The bottom-up approach involves more with literal meaning of the words and
sentences. Consider the following conversation:


The Application of Schema Theory within Discourse Analysis
A: Where’
s the cake?
B: Well, the dog looks happy.
The dialogue between A and B seems to be incoherent on surface, but it is coherent in semantic meaning if
we analyze it in terms of the coherent feature of a discourse. Actually, B’
s illocutionary meaning is clear. “The dog
has eaten the cake” is just B’
s conversational implication.
Now it is noticeable that in order to describe a certain conversational implicature, we had to appeal to some
background knowledge that must be shared by the participants. Another good example applying schema theory to the
conversational implicature has been provided by Sanford and Garrod (1981). The example begins with two sentences.
John was on his way to school last Friday.
He was really worried about the math lesson.
Most people report that they think John is probably a schoolboy or John is walking or on a bus. All the
information is clearly derived from our conventional knowledge. While the next sentence in the text is as follows.
Last week he had been unable to control the class.
On encountering this, most readers decide that John is, in fact, a teacher and that he is not happy; he is
probably driving to school. Then the next sentences are presented:
It was unfair of the math teacher to leave him in charge. After all, it is not a normal part of a janitor’
s duties.
Thus different implicature is given to the identical text through the application of a series of schemata.
4. Conclusion
As a result, we can draw a conclusion here that apart from various kinds of ways employed in doing
discourse analysis, there is still an indispensable one, i.e. the application of schema theory. It is schema theory that
has a great impact on semantic coherence and the conversational implicature and makes great difference in
comprehending a conversation in the process of discourse analysis.

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(Edited by Zhilu Lv, Yanhong Zuo, Hua Zhou and Thelma)