Systemic Functional Linguistics and its application to the study of academic conference presentations (Carolina Viera & Maite Taboada)

In this post, Carolina Viera and Maite Taboada analyze the language of conference presentations, focusing on their structure and linguistic characteristics. They find that presenters of linguistics and literature academic presentations in Spanish shape their discourse around social and professional expectations, with the more experienced presenters following the conventions of the genre more closely when the social function of the language is considered.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

As frequent conference-goers and linguists, we have long thought that the language of conference presentations was an interesting object of study. Conference presentations shape how presenters think of their work and how audiences perceive the presenter. These interactions have profound impact both on the intellectual exchange of ideas and the career prospects of academics yet have been understudied when compared to research articles and other written academic genres.

Academic conference presentations are interesting from a linguistic point of view because they may be very structured and carefully organized ahead of time, but they are delivered in an interactive context, which means they also have some of the linguistic characteristics of unplanned speech.

Taking as our framework Systemic Functional Linguistics, a semiotic approach to language which postulates that language is a system of choices shaped by the meanings speakers make and the functions involved in communication, we set out to study the structure and lexicogrammatical characteristics of oral presentations in Spanish. Why Spanish? Although English is the lingua franca of academia, there are many academic events, especially in the United States, which are conducted primarily in Spanish. We saw a gap in this literature, which is why Carolina initiated this research in the context of her PhD dissertation. Maite came to this collaboration as part of Carolina’s dissertation committee. The paper we discuss here was a detailed study of the structure and language of conference presentations. Given our desire to highlight the importance and widespread use of Spanish in the academic context, the paper is written in Spanish. It appeared in the journal Signos, which has been supporting and promoting linguistic studies in and about Spanish since 1967.

Our data consists of 32 presentations given in Spanish at academic conferences in the United States, in the areas of Linguistics and Literature in nine different academic events. Presenters were academics at different career stages, from graduate students to full professors. We videotaped, transcribed, and annotated these presentations to find common patterns. The contexts are interesting, because they share Spanish as a lingua franca, although the presenters and the disciplines were quite varied, a context somewhat similar to what Toma Pustelnikovaite describes in her post.

In particular, for this work we examined the structure of conference presentations as an instance of a genre, i. e., a configuration of linguistic choices that realized the social goals of a particular group. Recount, Procedure, or Narrative are instances of genres, which are realized in specific stages, such as Orientation, Steps, or Resolution. The genre perspective is important here, because different social communities may instantiate genres in different ways, depending on their social and communicative goals. In the specific case of academic presentations, the goals are multiple, involving the communication of research, the construction of a discourse community, and the positioning of the presenter as a member of that community. This variation was found in our study in a different sequence of stages by members of the two disciplines studied: Literature and Linguistics.

However, we also found common macro-stages in the presentations, in part stemming from the general structure of genres (beginning – middle – end) and the general structure of oral communication (greeting/opening – content – closing).

Macro-stageParticipants who included the stage (N=32)Percentage
Functional stages of conference presentations and their frequency

Our next step in the analysis consisted of studying different aspects of these stages and their realization, such as which stages are always present and which ones seem to be optional. We were also interested in whether there were any differences in the structure of the presentations depending on the academic career stage of the presenters. In general, we found that all the stages seem to be frequent, ranging from being present 100% to 69% of the time. Not surprisingly, stages that are unique to the macro-genre “conference” such as the opening and closing are favored by those with more experience (professors), likely because they demand awareness of the interpersonal role and norms of the conference presentation genre. The Closing stage, which serves a mostly social function (thanks, closing remarks, goodbyes) is the least frequent (perhaps because speakers run out of time), but still quite prevalent, appearing in 69% of the presentations.  As for other stages, there is variation according to discipline, with Linguistic professors making less emphasis on bibliographic review stages than Literature ones. Thus, Linguistics conferences focus on findings and results of their own study whereas Literature conferences prioritize connecting their oral texts to the research community and its production.

We were also interested in lexicogrammatical structures, that is, the linguistic devices used to convey meaning. We found that the opening and closing stages contained linguistic structures characteristic of oral and interactive language (non-technical lexical items, false starts, filled pauses, vocatives), whereas the introduction, and especially the development stages were highly technical (declarative mood, nominalization, passives, subordination).

In summary, our study highlights the structured nature of conference presentations, a structure that, at the same time, allows for a certain amount of flexibility and individual expression.

What is next?

It would be interesting to further explore the lexicogrammatical patterns that we have observed, establishing exactly what types of linguistic resources are more frequent in what stages, and how they are deployed.  An interesting aspect of genre analysis is how genres are learned, as there is typically no explicit instruction for the types of genres that most of us learn in adult life. Part of the process of becoming an academic involves acquiring familiarity with a multitude of spoken and written genres, from conference presentations to grant applications or even meetings with supervisors. Much of this knowledge is assumed, and that assumption tends to benefit the already privileged, those who have access through family or friends to academic life. And, of course, as any researcher who works with data, we always think that more data is better, so we would like to extend our corpus to other academic events, perhaps studying whether the switch to mostly online conferences during the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in changes.

Carolina Viera currently works in the World Languages Department at Boise State University as an Assistant Professor of Spanish. She received her PhD in Spanish Linguistics from the University of California, Davis, specializing in second language acquisition, and her MA in Hispanic Linguistics from the University of New Mexico. Her research interests include heritage language studies, discourse analysis, and applied linguistics. Her more recent research has analyzed the discourse produced in academic conference presentations in the Spanish spoken in the United States, oral proficiency and standards, and Corpus Linguistics. Email:

Maite Taboada is Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Simon Fraser University. She is a linguist working at the intersection of discourse analysis and computational linguistics. Her research interests within linguistics include discourse relations and evaluative language. In computational linguistics, she has worked on sentiment analysis, automatic moderation of online comments, and the language of misinformation. You can connect with her on Twitter @maite_taboada

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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