The Contextual Implications of Discourse Markers in a Non-native Linguistic Environment Like Nigeria
1.1 Background to the Study
The term discourse has become a reference point of study in a variety of disciplines in recent years, so much so that the concept has become vague, either meaning almost nothing or being used with more precise but rather different meanings in different context. However, discourse in most cases passes for conversation or more specifically is the general idea that language is structured according to different patterns that people’s utterances follow when they involve themselves in different domains of social life. In any case, it is a herculean task to know where or how to track down the meaning of discourse within the theoretical range of meanings. In linguistic parlance, discourse directly presupposes a foray into discourse analysis; a cover term for the many traditions by which discourse may be analysed and examined. Discourse analysis studies and examines how an addresser structures his linguistic messages for the addressee and how the addressee in turn uses some linguistic cues to interpret them (Brown and Yule 15). For Crystal in Mills it “focuses on the structure of naturally occurring spoken language, as found in such ‘discourses’ as conversations, interviews, commentaries and speeches” (3). It is a hybrid field of inquiry that does not presuppose a bias towards the study of either spoken or written language but spreads its focus to the context of language use as well as its inalienably social and interactive nature. In other words, it foregrounds language use as social action, language use as situated performance, language use as tied to social relations and identities and language use as essentially a matter of practices rather than just structures.
Central to discourse analysis is an array of linguistic elements otherwise referred to as discourse markers (DMs). Generally regarded as conjunctives, discourse markers basically refer to words or phrases that play a role in constraining and managing the flow and structure of discourse. After reviewing previous theoretical research, Fraser defines discourse markers as ‘a class of lexical expressions drawn primarily from the syntactic classes of conjunctions, adverbs and prepositional phrases’ (2). According to Lynn et al (117) in linguistics, ‘a discourse marker is a word or phrase that is relatively syntax-independent and does not change the meaning of the sentence, and has a somewhat empty meaning. For Swan (13), a discourse marker is “a word or expression or expression which shows connection between what is being said and the wider context. This implies that DMs first connects a sentence to what comes before or after and then indicates a speaker’s attitude to what is being said. In the nutshell, discourse markers foreground meaning, direct the flow of conversations and ensure cohesion and coherence of discourse or texts.
The use of discourse markers is one of the key features of spoken English. They are frequently used by speakers and play a significant role in speech, particularly in spontaneous speech. Crystal in Mills (150) maintains that if used properly, DMs act as a lubricant to refine the interaction between language users. Nevertheless, he opines that the use of some discourse markers like ‘well’, ‘you know’ and ‘I mean’ is often criticized as indicating poor competence in fluency or speech in general. However, he went further to opine that DMs should not be associated with an undesirable and overused style of speaking. The roles of DMs in language use are too important to be treated with minimal attention. Brown and Levinson (56) opine that discourse markers are important features of both formal and informal native speaker language. Without sufficient discourse markers in a piece of writing, it would be logically impossible to construct or deduce meanings from a piece of writing. Sharndama and Yakubu (4) suggest that discourse markers guide or predict the direction of the flow of discourse than linking the various text elements especially in spoken discourse. Discourse markers as a matter of fact do not principally function as attention catchers and are not optional extras in speech. Muller (8) points out that most researchers agree that the use of discourse markers facilitates the hearer’s task of comprehending the speaker’s utterances. In essence, discourse markers are linguistic items used by interactants to ease the interpretation of utterances by making contextual information easy to decode and to also enrich sentence meaning.
1.2 Statement of the Problem
Nigeria as a speech community is predominantly occupied by non-native speakers of the English Language. Therefore, the concept of discourse markers remains vague and incomprehensible to many language users regardless of their social class, level of education or status. As such, many still grapple with appropriate usage and contextual relevance of these linguistic elements in diverse discourse situations. In spite of the existing plethora of literatures on discourse markers, there still lies a gap in explicating these ideas in a manner that is most comprehensive to language users. To this end, this research is borne out of the need to salvage the situation in the best possible manner.
1.3 Aim and Objectives of Study
The aim of this study is to investigate and examine the contextual implications of discourse markers in a non-native linguistic environment like Nigeria based on one-on-one conversation. The objectives of this study therefore are as follows;
a. To critically appraise the form and functions of discourse markers as consequential elements in language use.
b. To investigate the contextual connotations of discourse markers as a function of the theoretical underpinnings of pragmatics.
c. To examine the appropriateness of use of discourse markers in the discourses examined, and
d. To deduce the functions and implications of discourse markers as negotiated by certain factors inherent in the context.
1.4 Research Questions
This study is informed by the following research questions:
a. What are discourse markers and their linguistic import in discourse?
b. What is the import of context and its implications on the use of discourse markers?
c. Should the inappropriate use of discourse markers be regarded as a reflection of the competence and performance of speakers? and
1.5 Scope and Limitation
This study falls within the purview of discourse analysis. The research hinges on understanding the influence of context as it determines the use and meaning of discourse markers in discourse situations; in this case Nigeria as a speech community. In this regard, the forms and functions of discourse markers viz-a-viz the context will guide the direction of this study. Also, this study will delve into related areas such as approaches to the study of discourse and the relevance theory (RT) as it affects the choice of discourse markers by language users at every moment of discourse as well as the patterns by which language users shape their discourse. Therefore, some select television interviews will be examined to accommodate the concerns of the research.
1.6 Significance of the Study
Discourse markers are invaluable linguistic tools language users can utilize to make communication smooth, thereby making reception and perception of ideas easy. However, communication is precipitated on language. It is therefore paramount that individuals possess this linguistic competence by grasping the essential rudiments of language so as not to have ideas or messages misconstrued. In this regard, discourse markers become inevitable elements for any communicative venture. They are an integral part of a language, dictating the course of discourses in whatever mode they occur. Unfortunately, the average Nigerian user of English Language still encounters some challenges as regards maximal use of these vital linguistic elements while some others are at a loss as to how to deploy them in any discourse situation. The potency of these linguistic tools in shaping discourses particularly in the Nigerian speech community leaves much to be desired regardless of its manner or pattern of use. Consequently, the significance of this study is outlined as follows:
a. The research will benefit language users in grasping the concept of discourse markers and simultaneously enhance their competence and performance in the language.
b. It contributes to the already existing literatures on discourse markers howbeit specifically on the Nigerian speech community.
c. Also the pedagogical implications of the study are immense. Language teachers as well as students will find the research very useful in the course of language teaching and learning; and
d. In a broader sense, the study will provide an insight for scholars undertaking studies on the linguistic peculiarities of Nigeria.
1.7 Motivation of the Study
In the emergence of a number of corpora dedicated to spoken English (Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English), the study of discourse markers has continued to be a popular area of interest for research. This is partly due to its variegated scope with a plethora of nomenclatures. Thus, the use of discourse markers by native speakers has been extensively investigated with tremendous results. This is in sharp contrast to the little attention often paid to the study of discourse markers used by non-native speakers of English Language. Compounding the situation in speech environments like Nigeria is the limited knowledge of many language users on the concept owing to some social and educational challenges. Although there are many users within the same speech environment who possess a sound knowledge of discourse markers, it is still dwarfed by the ratio of those who have little or no knowledge of these linguistic elements. Sadly, this low level of competence still subsists in formal discourse environments such as interviews and commentaries. In view of the foregoing, the study hinges on the need to critically understudy this extremely important linguistic concept as well as its contextual implication with a view to unearth it various forms and functions in any discourse event. In other words, discourse markers are fundamental linguistic elements for any discourse situation to have the premeditated aim and goals.