Cognitive Discourse Analysis: A method relating linguistic structure to cognitive representation

Thora Tenbrink, January 2016

The aim of Cognitive Discourse Analysis (CODA) is to gain insights about concepts and complex cognitive processes by a close look at how people verbalise their thoughts. Linguistic research, across various subfields, is accumulating an ever-increasing range of insights about the ways in which language relates to cognition. CODA uses these insights to analyse verbal data collected in relation to cognitively challenging tasks (Tenbrink, 2015). I have specialised in this area and refined CODA over the past 15 years, and have presented and taught the method at many occasions (invited talks, tutorials, seminars - see Tenbrink et al., 2012, for a tutorial report, and go to Workshops and Invited Talks for past and future events).

Many linguistic theories have addressed the relationship between language and thought (e.g., Talmy 2000, 2007; Evans and Green, 2006; Langacker, 2000; Tomasello, 2003). In particular, lexicogrammatical structures in language appear to be systematically related to cognitive structures and processes. This structural fact carries over to principles of language in use: the way we think is related to the way we talk. This is true both generally in terms of what we can do with language, and specifically with respect to what we actually do.

“What are you thinking?” This is a normal question in everyday life, and a meaningful answer is expected to follow. However, the answer will typically be given in language, as there is no direct way of accessing thoughts. The relationship between language and thought may not be simple, but it is nevertheless systematic. How scene descriptions are formulated reflects the speaker’s attention towards specific aspects of the scene, rather than others that are not mentioned or remain backgrounded in language. An utterance like “Turn right at the shopping mall” shows that the speaker has a concept of a unique shopping mall that distinguishes it from other buildings in the environment, and can therefore be referred to by a definite article and used as a landmark to anchor a direction change. To take another example, if speakers orient towards the overall trajectory of a planned path, or focus on object features such as colour to make their decisions, these issues will be reflected in their linguistic choices of references to path or object features (Tenbrink & Wiener, 2009). In these and other ways, linguistic choices reflect crucial aspects about the speakers’ concepts and strategies at any given moment. This provides a good pathway to access cognition, given the necessary expertise about relevant features of language.

When asked to verbalise their thoughts, as just illustrated, speakers draw in systematic ways from their general repertory of language to express their current thoughts. Their choices in relation to a perceptually complex scene or a problem solving process therefore reveal crucial aspects of how the speakers conceptualise these cognitively demanding situations. This sheds light on how people solve complex problem solving tasks (as reflected in their verbalisations), as well as how they describe complex problems or scenes (and what this reveals about their cognitive processes). Grammatical theory, cognitive linguistic semantics, and other linguistic findings support the evaluation of language use in relation to cognition.

Along these lines, CODA uses linguistic insights and analysis procedures in order to find out more about how people think. The method was primarily designed for the analysis of unrestricted language production data collected in controlled studies that relate to research issues in cognitive science, following up on ideas presented in Caron-Pargue & Gillis (1996). In this field, questions about human concepts and thought processes are often addressed by using various kinds of unconstrained verbalisations. CODA provides a framework for utilising linguistic insights for the analysis of such data, by investigating patterns of language use in relation to the situation in which language is produced. Relevant studies involve situations or tasks that highlight central aspects of mental representation (the conceptualisation of complex scenes, event perception, and the like) and complex cognitive processes (such as problem solving or decision making). Both of these relate to and enhance well-established research traditions in distinct ways.

With respect to mental representation, CODA addresses the conceptualisation of perceived situations and events, building on established psycholinguistic methods (e.g., Ellis, 1985/1987). In comparison to conventional psycholinguistic studies, the experimental settings used in CODA are less constrained so as to allow for free language usage, leading to a more thorough integration of qualitative (descriptive) findings concerning patterns in unconstrained linguistic choices. For example, in a collaboration with Kenny Coventry and Elena Andonova we carried out a series of empirical studies addressing spatial concepts and description strategies of spatial configurations. Results revealed that different object arrangements affected description strategies across various linguistic levels, including description trajectories, amount of detail, and explicit mention of atypical object orientation (Andonova et al., 2010). A detailed analysis of description strategies highlighted patterns in the use of conceptual reference frames and perspectives (Tenbrink et al., 2011). Complementary insights on spatial description strategies in more abstract settings were found by Tenbrink & Ragni (2012). In contrast to these structured scenarios, description strategies in cluttered environments were far more varied and incomplete (Tenbrink, Bergmann, Hertzberg, & Gondorf, in press).

Other CODA studies highlighted principles of mental representation across diverse contexts. For instance, Mast et al. (2014) identified two distinct principles of categorising direction in speakers’ spatial descriptions, shedding new light on the relationship between linguistic and non-linguistic categories. In an analysis of alpine route directions collected from the web, Egorova et al. (2015) highlighted principles of conceptualising environmental space that are fundamentally distinct from the everyday concepts known from street networks. Danino (2014) used CODA to analyse meaning construction in the discourse of 9/11. And Thomas et al. (2015) found systematic interrelations between linguistic markers of hesitation and accuracy in eyewitness reports.

With respect to complex cognitive processes, CODA enhances the widely used research paradigm of using think-aloud protocols and retrospective reports for the identification of (internal) cognitive processes (Ericsson and Simon, 1984). In that paradigm, researchers typically focus on the content of verbal data, predominantly addressing those aspects (e.g., particular thought processes or strategies) that the speakers are themselves aware of. The content-based inspection of verbal reports, particularly if carried out by experts in the problem domain and set against a substantial theoretical background (Krippendorff, 2004), can lead to substantial hypotheses about the cognitive processes involved. The systematic analysis of linguistic structures (as in CODA) then provides a sound basis for using the language data as evidence, based on a systematic operationalisation motivated by the relevant literature on linguistic features. Furthermore, it may lead to additional important discoveries concerning human conceptualisation that may not be accessible by employing content-based analysis uninformed by linguistic expertise.

In CODA, verbal reports are analysed with respect to patterns of linguistic structures emerging across individual speakers, constrained by their strategies of dealing with the problem solving task at hand. Relevant scenarios encompass, for instance, analogical problem solving (Gralla, Tenbrink, Siebers, & Schmid, 2012), planning and description strategies in a complex building (Tenbrink, Bergmann, & Konieczny, 2011), conceptual strategies in the Travelling Salesperson Problem (Tenbrink & Wiener, 2009; Tenbrink, 2008), holiday route planning (Tenbrink & Seifert, 2011), Origami paper folding (Taylor & Tenbrink, 2013, Tenbrink & Taylor, 2015), and maintaining orientation in virtual reality (Tenbrink & Salwiczek, in press).

In both areas, mental representation and problem solving, the aim in CODA is to gain insights into generalisable cognitive phenomena that go beyond conscious reflection by individual speakers, and that may not necessarily be directly observable in linguistic content. Discourse participants may not be aware of the cognitive structures that are reflected in particular ways of framing a representation linguistically. Furthermore, they may not be aware of the underlying network of options (Tenbrink & Freksa, 2009) that allows for a range of linguistic choices beside their own, which emerges only by considering a larger data set collected under controlled circumstances. According to previous research in cognitive linguistics and discourse analysis (e.g., van Dijk, 2008), linguistic features such as the verbal representation of semantic domains reflected in ideational networks, lexical omissions and elaboration, presuppositions, hesitation and discourse markers, and the like all indicate certain conceptual circumstances; these should be systematically related to the mental representations or problem solving procedure in question. In addition, the relationship between linguistic patterns and the associated cognitive processes can be fruitfully examined further via triangulation, i.e., the combination of linguistic analysis with other types of evidence such as behavioral performance data (e.g., Tenbrink & Wiener, 2009; Hoelscher et al., 2011).


  • Andonova, Elena, Thora Tenbrink, and Kenny R. Coventry. 2010. Function and Context Affect Spatial Information Packaging at Multiple Levels. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 17, 575-580.

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  • Egorova, Ekaterina, Tenbrink, Thora, and Purves, Ross. 2015. Where snow is a landmark: Route direction elements in alpine contexts. In Sara Irina Fabrikant, Martin Raubal, Michela Bertolotto, Clare Davies, Scott Freundschuh, and Scott Bell (eds.), Spatial Information Theory, pp. 175-195. Berlin: Springer.

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  • Tenbrink, Thora, Evelyn Bergmann, Christoph Hertzberg, and Carsten Gondorf (in press). Time will not help unskilled observers to understand a cluttered spatial scene. Spatial Cognition and Computation.

  • Tenbrink, Thora, Evelyn Bergmann, and Lars Konieczny. 2011. Wayfinding and description strategies in an unfamiliar complex building. In Laura Carlson, Christoph Hoelscher, and Thomas F. Shipley (Eds.), Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society, pp 1262-1267.

  • Tenbrink, Thora, Kenny R. Coventry, and Elena Andonova. 2011. Spatial strategies in the description of complex configurations. Discourse Processes 48:237–266.

  • Tenbrink, Thora, Tommaso D’Odorico, Christoph Hertzberg, Guezin Mazman, Chiara Meneghetti, Nina Reshoeft, Jinlong Yang. 2012. Tutorial report: Understanding spatial thought through language use. JOSIS Journal of Spatial Information Science 5:107-114.

  • Tenbrink, Thora and Christian Freksa. 2009. Contrast sets in spatial and temporal language. Cognitive Processing 10 Supplement 2, S322-S324.

  • Tenbrink, Thora and Marco Ragni. 2012. Linguistic principles for spatial relational reasoning. In Cyrill Stachniss, Kerstin Schill, and D. Uttal (Eds.): Spatial Cognition 2012, LNAI 7463, pp 279-298. Springer, Heidelberg.

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  • Tenbrink, Thora and Inessa Seifert. 2011. Conceptual Layers and Strategies in Tour Planning. Cognitive Processing 12:1, 109–125.

  • Tenbrink, Thora and Holly A. Taylor. 2015. Conceptual transformation and cognitive processes in Origami paper folding. Journal of Problem Solving 8:1, 2-22.

  • Tenbrink, Thora and Jan Wiener. 2009. The verbalization of multiple strategies in a variant of the traveling salesperson problem. Cognitive Processing 10:2, 143-161.

  • Thomas, Ayanna, Chen, Caroline, Gordon, Leamarie, and Tenbrink, Thora. 2015. Choose your words wisely: What verbal hesitation indicates about eyewitness accuracy. Applied Cognitive Psychology 29:5, 735–741. doi: 10.1002/acp.3157.

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