The Role of Discourse in Language Development

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the role that discourse plays in language development, This applies in both native language and foreign language learning situations. Updated: 10/20/2020

What Is Discourse?

When was the last time you had a conversation with someone, either through writing or in person? It was probably pretty recently. Whenever you communicate with someone about a topic, either in writing or speaking, you are participating in discourse. Since communication happens all the time, discourse is a huge part of our everyday lives. It's absolutely vital, especially as part of the language learning process.

There are two overarching types of language instruction. The first is explicit, or formal instruction. This is probably the type of instruction you think of automatically that involves vocabulary lists and looking at specific tenses or conjugations. The second is implicit, or communication-based instruction. When using discourse as a tool in the classroom, it falls under the implicit instruction umbrella because the focus is on fluid communication rather than specific grammar or a subset of vocabulary.

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  • 0:04 What Is Discourse?
  • 1:00 Language Acquisition
  • 1:53 Strategies
  • 2:53 Discourse in the Classroom
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Language Acquisition

There has been a lot of research about language acquisition. One of the most famous theories on the topic is one by Dr. Stephen Krashen, from the University of Southern California. As part of his Theory of Second Language Acquisition, he argues that there are two systems involved in language learning: acquisition and learning. Acquisition is a product of subconscious processes, such as what occurs through implicit instructions, while learning is a product of explicit instructions.

What Krashen's theory tells us is that discourse, as part of implicit language instruction, actually plays a different role in language learning than explicit instruction. The emphasis in discourse is communication. As students practice more discourse, their language use becomes more fluid. Discourse also helps them practice communication strategies for when they need to discuss a concept they are less familiar with.


Whether you're communicating in your native language or a second language, sometimes you are going to want to talk about something that you just don't have the words for. In these situations, people fall back on different communication strategies to get their point across. These can include paraphrasing, substitution of a known word or phrase, or circumlocution. Circumlocution is when you go the long way around the concept. For example, if you didn't know the word ''blueberry,'' you might say 'small blue round fruit that grows on bushes.' It takes more effort, but with circumlocution you can use words you do know to get the point across regarding a word you don't know.

With more discourse and communication practice, the need for these strategies dwindles. However, regardless of your fluency in a language, there will always come a time when you need to use them. That's why it is important to practice them as part of fluid communication, so that you can continue your conversation even if you can't find exactly the right word.

Discourse in the Classroom

Discourse is a useful tool in both native and second language classrooms. In either case, the communication strategies tend to be the same, and implicit instruction is equally important for any language learning. In a classroom setting, of course, it's best used to compliment explicit instruction. Communication activities can easily be tailored to suit the topic being taught at the time.

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