Analysing language from the outside in

It has been nearly twenty years to the day since I graduated from the University of Nottingham (for the first time) with a BA Hons in Modern Language Studies. I was in one of the first cohorts to study three languages to degree level – two from A-level and a third ab initio. We were a group of only ten. So, even then, before the decline in language student numbers and the subsequent closure of university language faculties, there were few willing to take on the trilingual challenge.

Because it was precisely that. It was a challenge from start to finish. To switch between languages, to sit in seminars with mono- and bilinguists (who really only had two languages to worry about), to plan the year abroad. It was a challenge. And it was really hard work.

For although my comprehensive and sixth-form education had given me a firm foundation in the grammar and vocabulary of French and German, I had never actually been to France and I had only spent three weeks in Germany. A school trip to chip away at what remained of the Berlin Wall being the most memorable of these, not least for the fact that a fellow student nearly knocked himself out with a mallet.

So, I did not have the depth of language knowledge that comes with immersion in a linguistic community. I lacked the intercultural communicative competence – a concept I learnt during my teacher education – vital to mastery. Because language learning is not simply about rote learning nouns, verbs and phrases for an end of unit test or exam. That only points you towards your communicative destination. It does not tell you how to deal with a traffic jam or a hole in the road or a flat tyre en route.

For if the nouns, verbs and grammar are the route map to understanding a foreign language, the opportunity to live in another country and interact daily with native speakers gives you the sense of direction to cope with getting lost in country roads or driving the wrong way down a one-way street. It is driving without maps. It is turning off the GPS to see where the road takes you. The chance to use a language in context gives you a greater sense of yourself in context. It makes every word, phrase and sentence more meaningful.

I think this is why I am so sceptical about empirical studies which focus purely on text level analysis. Policy documents are not written in isolation. They are produced within a specific cultural, social, historical, political, economic and ideological context. And as much as the material world can influence their content, so can their content influence the material world (Fairclough, 2010).

Importantly, authorship is often multiple. Many voices contribute to their production. So, to analyse through one set of eyes is problematic. And to read meaning into a policy document which conforms to an accepted bureaucratic model and has undergone a high level of editing before publication, only heightens the issues of subjective interpretation. These texts are simultaneously voiced and de-voiced. And should be understood accordingly.

So, for my doctoral research, I decided I needed a different approach to text work. One which enabled me to draw back from the minutiae and focus on the production and context of the document. One which enabled me to apply my language knowledge rather than be bound by the rules of it. And, for this, I had to discard the linguistic road map temporarily and find my own way through the unfamiliar.

As my thesis focuses predominantly on the social actors involved in the policy process, I wanted to conduct documentary analysis in a way which would highlight their involvement from the start. Principally, I was influenced by Fairclough’s (2010) three-dimensional framework to Critical Discourse Analysis. But instead of working from the inside out – from text level to discourse practice (production) level to social practice (context) level – I chose to analyse language from the outside in.

I moved away from the detail of Halliday’s (2013) theory of Systemic Functional Linguistics – which Fairclough (2010) applies to his text level analysis – and developed my own analytical framework. In doing so, I threw away the A-Z of linguistics and found an approach which worked better for my research questions.

So far, the process has been extraordinarily insightful in terms of the data I have been able to generate. Knowing the whos and whys of policy making has given me a greater understanding of the whats of policy discourses of teacher professionalism. But more than that. I have become more confident in my ability to find solutions to research problems. I have taken wrong turns. I have come up against obstacles. At times, I have felt very lost. But I have found my way out the other side. And I am more confident as a result. Ultimately, despite the uncertainty of analysing without maps, my journey to finding voice in policy texts has enabled my own researcher voice to emerge.


Fairclough N. (2010) Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language (Second Edition).  Abingdon: Routledge

Halliday M.A.K. (2013) An Introduction to Functional Grammar: Fourth Edition.  London: Hodder Arnold.


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