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Review of  Words and Minds: How We Use Language to Think Together

Reviewer: Andrew Wilcox
Book Title: Words and Minds: How We Use Language to Think Together
Book Author: Neil Mercer
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 12.2298

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Mercer, Neil (2000) Words and Minds: How We Use Language
to Think Together. Routledge, hardback ISBN 0-415-22475-6,
GBP 35.00; paperback ISBN 0-415-22476-4, GBP 9.99.

Andrew Wilcox, University of Wales, Swansea

[Book announcement at]

In this monograph, Neil Mercer sets out to examine the
constructive and co-operative use of spoken language to
build new structures of thought in and between
individuals, as well as the possible non-occurrence or
failure of this process. There is a clear didactic
purpose, the claim being that research into the ways
people speak together to build understanding or solve
problems can be applied in order to increase the
effectiveness of co-operation in and through speech, in
education and in the real world. A wide audience is
intended; I shall return to this statement.

The book is in seven chapters. Chapter 1, Language as a
tool for thinking, defines the author's view of language
and stakes a claim for the kind of linguistic
investigation in which he is engaged; language is
examined in its social context, and this examination is
integrated with an account of developing cognition. The
concept of "interthinking", which will run through the
book, is defined at the outset as "use of language for
thinking together, for collectively making sense of
experience and solving problems" (p.1).

Chapters 2 through to 6 offer supporting reviews of some
work in discourse analysis, conversation analysis,
education, and computer text analysis, from a variety of
researchers including the author and his colleagues. The
points are illustrated with transcriptions of language in
use in interaction, which are then analysed with the
"interthinking" concept in mind. These data come from a
variety of settings, including professional "on-task"
interaction, the courtroom, an e-mail exchange,
ethnographic investigation, educational research, and
classrooms. The tendency in selection is towards the last
two of these, which will come as no surprise to those
familiar with Mercer's earlier work on language in
education (e.g. Edwards and Mercer 1987, Mercer 1996).
Building on the foundation of the review and the
analyses, Mercer introduces his new terms, or new ways of
looking at familiar concepts. "Interthinking" has already
been mentioned. It is also worth noting the insistence
"context" as something dynamic, constantly re-made, apart
from the "context of use" that texts carry with them from
the start. Dynamic context is re-made not only in the
course of an interaction but over the history of the
interactions of groups, in what Mercer terms the "long

The core of Mercer's analysis of how interthinking might
fail is his tripartite classification of kinds of talk:
disputational, cumulative, and exploratory. In
disputational talk, speakers are concerned to defend
their own selves, at the possible expense of any attempt
at a solution or an approach to truth. The imperative is
to disagree. In cumulative talk, rapport and solidarity
take precedence, each speaker seeking to support the
other's self. Again, effective co-operation on an
external task may be hampered, as speakers bend over
backwards to agree with each other, rather than to
explore facts and solutions. Exploratory talk occurs when
speakers "engage critically but constructively with each
other's ideas" (p.98). Disagreement necessarily occurs,
but reasons are given. Transactionally, one might say
that both or all selves are effaced to the extent that no
self is under threat or in need of support or face-
saving. In terms of the metafunctions of systemic
linguistics, in disputational and in cumulative talk, the
interpersonal predominates, while in exploratory talk the
ideational function comes to the fore.
These three categories are not exclusive, since, as
Mercer points out, any conversation may display elements
of more than one of these, or switch from one to the
other. One might also point out that in systemic-
functional grammar, all three metafunctions,
interpersonal, ideational and textual, are necessarily
present in every clause, and so in every text or
utterance (Halliday 1994).

Chapter 6, Development through Dialogue, shows "how
children use language for collective thinking, and how
other people help them to do so" (p.131). In other words,
here the author is explicitly concerned with the
relations among children's social, linguistic and
cognitive development, and with educational processes in
schools and elsewhere. He reviews his own research into
"Talk lessons", as implemented in classrooms. Much of
this chapter, in effect, up-dates the reader on the
continuation of the work reported in Mercer 1995.
A complaint about discussion and group work in the
classroom is that all too often learners do not co-
operate effectively through language. Mercer demonstrates
that this may occur because learners do not, or cannot,
engage in suitably task-oriented exploratory talk, but
rather maintain their interaction on a strongly and
inappropriately interpersonal level. We are given
examples of this, with the wry comment on one that "This
is the kind of talk which gives group work a bad name"
(p.146). Mercer suggests, and has investigated, two
possible solutions to this problem. The first is the
establishing of explicit "ground rules" for classroom
speech. The second is to train learners in the kind of
exploratory interaction of which they may not be capable:
this training constitutes the "Talk lessons". Some
promising results are reported. For instance, concordance
examination of learner transcripts post-treatment shows
an increase in the use of words used "to account for
their opinions", such as "because" and "if" (p.154).
Trained children working in groups showed improved
performance on a problem-solving test (Raven's
Progressive Matrices), while there is also evidence that
the "Talk lessons" may improve children's capacity to
reason when working alone (p.158).

In chapter 7, Conclusions, Mercer emphasises the
interdisciplinary nature of the background to
"interthinking", explores some of the implications for
linguistic research of an "intermental perspective", and
suggests some directions and methods for further work. He
then rounds up by describing the possible applications of
such work, in education and in the real world.
Mercer believes that there has been too little interest
among researchers in "evaluating communication and
assessing its outcomes" (p.175). Indeed: it probably
needs an educator to make this observation, as a purely
descriptive, non-evaluative linguistics, in which
prescription and proscription are proscribed, is a poor
fit with the needs of a classroom. Mercer believes that
the social/ functional kind of linguistics can be applied
to real-world problems. In this his purpose is comparable
with that of Deborah Tannen in her popular accounts of
communication failure (e.g. Tannen 1999). Where Mercer
goes further is in his account of cognitive development
through social interaction, his belief, again that of an
educator, that people learn to think by thinking
together, and his investigation of ways in which this
thinking together may be taught.

More could be said about this book. It would be possible
to go into Mercer's (acknowledged) dept to the work of
Bakhtin and Vygotsky. Some of his concepts and particular
analyses could receive detailed critiques. The issue of
cultural difference is rather skated over, as is language
and gender. Perhaps Mercer takes the view, which I would
share, that since women are capable of disputation, and
men are capable of co-operation, then the proportions in
which they do so are of lesser importance, given his
thesis that people in general need to find ways to make
their talk more constructive. Nevertheless, it is true
that members of some cultures and one gender tend to
approach co-operative construction through language in
ways that may well appear disputational to members of
other cultures or the other gender. Careful analyses are
required, as well as tolerance on the part of hearers.

The full bibliography is referenced in superscript number
to endnote form, probably because this is friendlier to
the general reader. I noticed, almost in passing, two
incorrect dates on the same page (Brown, R and D McNeill
1966, not 1996, Cook, G 1994, not 1995). It is of course
possible that I chanced to pick up the only two errors.
The text itself is free of misprints.

This work seems to be a potential tertiary-level textbook
that will also be of interest to general readers and to
the academic community. It should find its way onto
reading lists for trainee teachers of any subject, for
instance those on British PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate
in Education) courses. If we agree that the main tool of
education is language, then trainee teachers need to look
at the ways teachers and learners use language together.
With this in mind, this book provides much interesting
material for discussion, as well as a review of some
theoretical considerations and methods of analysis.
The book is also intended, clearly, to reach the
interested lay person. Were an intelligent person from
outside the field to ask me, "What is discourse analysis,
and is it of any use?", then I would unhesitatingly
recommend this book. In accordance with these two
audiences, care is taken to make ideas accessible. Each
chapter except the last ends with a summary. Terms such
as "cataphoric", "coherence" and "corpus" are carefully
explained, and there is a table of the most basic
conventions of transcription for conversational analysis.
While there cannot be many subscribers to the Linguist
List who would need this assistance, the book is also a
work of scholarship, in which ideas that will be new to
many are presented, while a number of little-explored
lines of research are pointed out.

All in all, this work is a successful combination of
review and originality, accessible to those not already
indoctrinated into the discourse of the close analysis of
text, but also containing much of interest to those who

Edwards, D. & N. Mercer (1987) Common Knowledge: The
development of understanding in the classroom. Routledge

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) An Introduction to Functional
Grammar. (2nd edition). Edward Arnold

Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge:
talk among teachers and learners. Multilingual Matters

Tannen, D. (1999) The Argument Culture: Stopping
America's war of words. Ballantine Books (first published
1998 as The Argument Culture: Moving from debate to

Andrew Wilcox has been a teacher of English to speakers
of other languages for over twenty years. For his MA he
investigated learners' narrative production, drawing on
perspectives from discourse and conversation analysis. He
is currently working towards a PhD in second language
vocabulary acquisition with the University of Wales
Swansea, UK.