This/That, Here/There: Spatial Deixis in EAP Classroom Discourse

  • Eric Friginal
  • Joseph J. Lee
  • Brittany Polat
  • Audrey Roberson


In Chap. 5, we examined person deixis in the form of first and second person pronouns. In this chapter, we concentrate on spatial deixis, a highly common feature in face-to-face interactions but one that is under-researched in classroom settings. Specifically, we explore the use of demonstratives and adverbs of locations in the L2CD-S and L2CD-T, and we compare learners’ and teachers’ use of these spatial deictics in the EAP classroom. By examining their use of spatial deictics, important insights can be gained on how each group conceptualizes objects and one another in the physical space of the classroom and connects with one another’s informational space.

In Chap.  5, we examined person deixis in the form of first and second person pronouns. In this chapter, we concentrate on spatial deixis, a highly common feature in face-to-face interactions but one that is under-researched in classroom settings. Specifically, we explore the use of demonstratives and adverbs of locations in the L2CD-S and L2CD-T, and we compare learners’ and teachers’ use of these spatial deictics in the EAP classroom. By examining their use of spatial deictics, important insights can be gained on how each group conceptualizes objects and one another in the physical space of the classroom and connects with one another’s informational space.

Spatial Deixis

Deictic markers are essentially pointing words, whose meanings derive from the situational context of utterance. As an important marker showing the relationship between language and context, the use of spatial deictics is one way in which speakers use language to encode and interpret dimensions of spontaneous, face-to-face interaction. Despite variations in the ways spatial deixis is realized in different languages, it is a feature of all languages because of its significance in connecting the interaction to its context (Cairns 1991). In English, spatial deixis is primarily expressed through devices such as demonstratives this/these and that/those and locative adverbs here/there. These deictic expressions mark locations with reference to the speaker’s position on the spatial axis, and the center shifts as conversational turns change from one speaker to the next; therefore, the referent also changes each time it is used (Cairns 1991).

English speakers divide space in binary ways, with here, this, and these marking something proximal (or close) while there, that, and those indicate entities distal (or distant) in relation to the speaker’s orientation (Levinson 1983). This “proximal/distal continuum,” according to Cairns (1991), is considered to be “the basic criterion for spatial deixis” (p. 26). Interpretation of these deictic markers depends on the speaker and hearer sharing a common context. Spatial deictics allow the speaker to direct the hearer’s attention in line with the speaker’s point of reference, whether the referent is physically or psychologically close or distant. Similarly, using the ecological metaphor of territory, Kamio (2001) proposes that spatial deixis can be understood in terms of “general perceived space,” whereby the conversational space is split into “proximal and distal subareas” (p. 1113), and “the speaker’s territory…is proximal to the speaker, whereas the hearer’s territory…is distal to the speaker, but proximal to the hearer” (p. 1114).

Furthermore, these proximal and distal deictic markers are further categorized into gestural or symbolic deixis (Levinson 1983). Gestural deixis are often accompanied by a non-verbal gesture (e.g., pointing or showing), as illustrated in (1), while symbolic deixis are those expressions that refer to commonly shared knowledge between the speaker and hearer or an entity not visible within the context of utterance, as shown in (2):

Text Samples 6.1 (1–2) Commonly Shared Knowledge


S: okay, my friend, thi- this chair is for you. (L2CD-S-3)


T: the London Company was here to make money. (L2CD-T-21)

In (1), it is easy to imagine the student pulling up or pointing to the chair as he says this chair. In (2), here is not the immediate context of the classroom, but it can be easily interpreted due to the teacher’s and students’ shared knowledge of the London Company having been in the United States at some point.

Biber et al. (1999) found that the demonstrative determiner and pronoun that is exceedingly more common in conversations than written registers, but this, these, and those are relatively more frequent in academic writing. They also observe that both here and there are more frequent in conversations, and there is preferred to here when referencing places. Furthermore, singular forms of these spatial deictic markers are more frequent than their plural forms in conversations. In their analysis of a corpus of casual conversations, O’Keeffe et al. (2011) also report that that is the most frequently used spatial deixis, and that and there are among the top 20 most frequent words in their corpus of conversations. These findings clearly show the importance of examining spatial deixis, as they play a crucial role in real-time, face-to-face interactions (O’Keeffe et al. 2011).

Despite their importance in face-to-face interactions, we are aware of only one study that has specifically examined spatial deixis in classroom discourse. In a study of university lectures across disciplines, Bamford (2004) explored the use of here in MICASE and another corpus of guest lectures (Siena corpus), and compared these lectures with casual conversations. In both lecture corpora, instructors made greater use of gestural here to make reference to visuals and to highlight “the common spatial context” of the lecturer and students (p. 135). In addition, she observes that here, in academic lectures and conversations, is used in different ways and that the use of deixis is one way lecturers tailor their talk to students’ linguistic needs. Biber et al. (2004) found that certain lexical bundles include spatial deictics (e.g., that’s one of the, and this is a), and these bundles occur only in classroom teaching. These bundles, as they report, serve as referential bundles used to identify an entity. Furthermore, although focused on discourse markers (e.g., and, okay), Yang (2014) shows that that and this are among the top 20 most frequent words in Chinese college EFL teachers’ discourse and in MICASE lectures, which supports both Biber et al.’s (1999) and O’Keeffe et al.’s (2011) findings of that in casual conversations. Likewise, that was reported to be among the top 10 most frequent words in L1 and L2 students’ speech (O’Boyle 2014). Bamford (2004) proposes that much more research on spatial deixis in the classroom is needed, as very little is known of how students and teachers use these markers of spatial orientation, which when used successfully “can be a demonstration of social proximity—an informational enactment of intimacy” (Sidnell and Enfield 2016, p. 237). The remainder of this chapter focuses on our analytical procedure and reports our findings of spatial deixis, specifically demonstratives (both pronouns and determiners) and adverbs of location, in learner and teacher talk.

Analytical Procedure

To examine spatial deixis in the EAP classroom, we once again use the L2CD-S and L2CD-T introduced in Chap.  3 to compare how learners and teachers conceptualize spatial orientation in the classroom relative to each other. We limited our analysis to demonstrative determiners (this chair/these chairs, that book/those books), demonstrative pronouns (this/these, that/those), and adverbs of location (here/there), as these are considered the most common ways of expressing locations of entity in relation to a speaker’s information territory. Using AntConc (Anthony 2014), we searched electronically for each instance of these deictic markers. Upon identifying all examples in the L2CD-S and L2CD-T, each potential item was examined manually in its context in order to determine whether it was functioning as a spatial deictic, non-deictic, or another deictic.

Demonstrative pronouns and determiners can function as spatial deictics, discourse deictics to point to anaphoric (previous) or cataphoric (subsequent) references, or non-deictics. In (3), this functions as spatial deixis, whereas in (4), it serves as a discourse deictic marker:

Text Samples 6.2 (3–13) Examining Spatial Deixis


S: i have this paper teacher. (L2CD-S-4)


T: the main idea should be bigger than the one sentence. for example, when we look at the paragraph with writing, the main idea, personal communication in Turkey. this is the main idea sentence. (L2CD-T-3)

As can be seen, the student in (3) uses this to indicate that the location of the paper is proximal to his territory. However, in (4), this points anaphorically to personal communication in Turkey. The non-deictic use of this is illustrated in (5):

T: so in general, that’s the big difference, okay? but there might be some occasions where they make some money or some you know, it’s not. a hundred percent this way or that way but in general that’s the big difference, okay? (L2CD-T-22)

This in (5) is categorized as non-deictic use because it is part of a somewhat fixed idiomatic expression, this way or that way, used to convey a lack of complete certainty.

Biber et al. (1999) explains that that is one of the most flexible English words. In addition to its spatial (6) and discourse (7) functions, it can function as a complementizer (8), relative pronoun (9), and stance adverbial (10):

S: who need use that paper. (L2CD-S-1)


T: and you know sometimes, even there’s two examples, broke and he has broken. simple past or present perfect. so the reason for this, is because, he broke it, which is a simple past action, but you could say, in a five year period, he’s, the breaking is still happening. so that’s why th- there’s sometimes two choices. (L2CD-T-4).


S: yes. but i i i talk about but just a little bit. i don’t think that i can. explain. (L2CD-S-11)


S: Kohls say that to make sense of another culture, we must understand that basic belief assumption and values of cult- in a group (L2CD-S-3)


T: you’re right if you got that much money. you need to share it. (L2CD-T-8)

Therefore, demonstratives that did not function as spatial deixis were excluded from the analysis.

Here and there are also multifunctional. They can serve as a spatial (11) or temporal deictic (12), but there can also function non-deictically as a dummy subject (13).

S: you can stay there. (L2CD-S-10)


T: well guys i think we’re gonna have to stop here for right now we’re not finished, we’re gonna continue this on Monday because i wanna give you back your, voice recording two results okay so, let’s just hold on that okay? (L2CD-T-21)


S: there are thirteen value for example competition many American are competitive. (L2CD-S-13)

Items such as (12) and (13) were also omitted from our analysis, as they are not used in a spatial deictic sense.

After identifying those demonstratives and locative adverbs that only functioned as spatial deictics, the tokens were normalized to occurrences per 1000 words (ptw). Additionally, using AntConc’s clusters function, the two sub-corpora were analyzed for the most common recurring two- to five-word lexicogrammatical phrases, and the concordances were examined to determine whether these clusters were used in a spatial deictic sense. The search resulted in very few four- and five-word clusters, but many two- and three-word lexical phrases. Because of the size of the L2CD corpus, we established the following criteria to minimize the impact of individual speaking styles: the cluster appears in each teacher’s lesson in at least four lessons, and at a normalized frequency of 0.5 ptw. We then used Rayson’s (n.d.) Log-likelihood Calculator to determine whether the differences in occurrences of the demonstratives and place adverbs, and their associated clusters, between the two sub-corpora were statistically significant; a log-likelihood value of 3.84 or higher is significant at the p<0.05 level.

Results and Discussion

The results show that, while less frequent than personal pronouns (see Chap.  5), spatial deixis is very common in both learner and teacher classroom talk. As they are also highly common in casual conversations (Biber et al. 1999), the findings suggest that the EAP classroom is reflective of a highly conversational speech event. Table 6.1
Table 6.1

Comparison of proximal and distal deixis in the two sub-corpora






Per 1000 words


Per 1000 words


Proximal deixis






Distal deixis












*A log-likelihood greater than 3.84 indicates a p-value less than 0.05

shows the distribution and normalized frequencies of proximal, distal, and total deictics used in the two sub-corpora.

As can be seen, one spatial deictic is used every 50 words in the L2CD-S and nearly twice per 50 words in the L2CD-T. Furthermore, as shown in Table 6.1, the learners overwhelmingly preferred proximal to distal deictics. Similar to their use of personal pronouns (Chap.  5), the learners’ preference for perceiving space within the speaker’s territory is indicative of a highly egocentric positioning (Kamio 2001). In contrast, the teachers seemed to shift the center of location from the territory of the teacher to that of the learners more or less equally. Although the constant movement of the referential location of entities is considered to cause some confusion (O’Keeffe et al. 2011), it is reflective of interactive and contextualized classrooms in which teachers coordinate people and objects spatially to assign different types of associated meanings. It can be argued that while EAP learners tend to conceptualize classroom space closer to themselves, teachers seem to view the classroom space, including classroom participants and objects, more widely in their attempts to direct learners’ attention to entities proximally and distally from the teachers’ speaker territory.

However, Table 6.1 shows that not only is spatial deixis exceedingly more frequent in the L2CD-T, but that teachers used significantly more proximal and distal deictics than the learners. This may be partially explained by the fact that the L2CD consists primarily of whole class talk where the teachers do most of the talking and their conversational turns are much longer in length. Csomay (2007) found that students take more turns than lecturers in university classrooms. However, slightly over 20% of student turns consists of one-word utterance, but only 1.5% of teacher turns contained one word. Therefore, the difference between learner and teacher use of spatial deixis is probably due to learners’ contributions to the L2CD being comprised mostly of shorter utterances that are mainly responses to teacher questions, as discussed in Chap.  3.

Demonstratives in Learner and Teacher Talk

In both sub-corpora, demonstratives are the principal spatial deixis used, as Table 6.2 shows. In fact, nearly 86% of spatial deixis employed in the L2CD-S are demonstratives, and over 81% are demonstratives in the L2CD-T. As the table also shows, although teachers frequently used this, they preferred to use distal spatial deictic that more, which supports previous findings of university lecturers (O’Boyle 2014) and casual conversations (Biber et al. 1999). In the L2CD-T, the demonstrative that is ranked 10th, and this is 15th. The L2CD-S, on the other hand, contains a greater number of this than that, which diverges from O’Boyle (2014), in which that, but not this, is among the top 10 most frequently used words in both L1 and L2 learner talk. In the L2CD-S, this is the 13th most frequent word, and that is ranked 27th. As discussed in Chap.  5
Table 6.2

Comparison of demonstratives in the two sub-corpora






Per 1000 words


Per 1000 words






































*A log-likelihood greater than 3.84 indicates a p-value less than 0.05

, however, it is important to note that O’Boyle’s corpus of L2 learner talk consists of only learner-learner interactions. When it comes to demonstratives, our findings again demonstrate that learners tend to locate entities more in their own territory. The teachers, however, are inclined to use demonstratives to position classroom participants and objects both distally from and proximally within their speaker territory.

Identical to our findings of overall proximal and distal deixis used, the L2CD-T contains significantly more proximal and distal demonstratives than the L2CD-S, as shown in Table 6.2 However, no significant difference was found for this. Furthermore, the singular forms of demonstratives are much more common than the plural forms in both sub-corpora, which supports Biber et al.’s (1999) analysis of conversations. Actually, the learners rarely used the plural forms.

Turning to the most frequent lexical phrases in the two corpora, only two-word clusters occurred at a minimum of 0.5 ptw. In the L2CD-S, only six two-word clusters (three distal and three proximal) met the established criteria. The most frequent demonstrative clusters in the learner sub-corpora are the proximal deictics: this one (1.58 ptw) and this is (1.31 ptw):

Text Samples 6.3 (14–20) Demonstratives in Learner and Teacher Talk


S: this one or this one? (L2CD-S-10)


S: this is a crown, yeah. (L2CD-S-3)

In (14), the learner uses this one to ask the teacher which assignment is for homework, while the learner uses this is in (15) to name the entity within the student’s spatial territory.

In the teacher sub-corpora, 11 two-word clusters were identified, of which six were singular distal demonstratives and five, proximal. Among the most frequent distal deictics, that’s a and is that occur 0.71 ptw and 0.70 ptw, respectively:

T: okay that’s a transition word. what’s the correct punctuation. (L2CD-T-6)


T: hi Carlos how are you. is that your pen? (L2CD-T-M)

The teacher in (16) uses the distal demonstrative to identify the transition word used by a student, and locates the referent in the proximal space of the student. In (17), the teacher inquires about whether a specific pen belongs to the student. Regarding two-word clusters with proximal demonstratives, the most frequent are this is (2.34 ptw), a shared cluster with the learners, and in this (0.74 ptw):

T: yeah, oh that is wrong, yeah it’s wrong you were right it is wrong. yeah, i have to, now this is correct actually that’s a good thing you pointed that out Diep now see Diep, was a, a teacher. (L2CD-T-13)


T: folks i wanna point something out out to you about using can and can’t don’t do anything with this paper yet don’t fill in this paper yet. leave this blank, don’t do anything with this yet. (L2CD-T-9)

In (18), the teacher points to a typo that a student identified in a handout the teacher distributed to the students. Notice that when the teacher points out the mistake, she uses that, but uses this when indicating what is correct. As Cairns (1991) points out, spatial deixis can be used to create a psychological distance from a proposition in order to express attitude. The teacher appears to use this is to establish a mental closeness to the correction while distancing herself from the error with that is. In (19), it is clear that the teacher uses the combination of a locative preposition and demonstrative determiner to direct the learners’ attention to the paper in his hand. Though less frequent, teachers also used the two-word cluster this one (0.65 ptw), the second most frequent lexical phrase in the L2CD-S:

T: let’s look at this one over here. this is a fact. and she’s gonna talk about the bird, as a symbol. so, she’s given us a fact about, the national bird is called Turpial. (L2CD-T-5)

In this example, this one is preceded by the prepositional verb look at to draw the learners’ focus to a symbol, in this case the national bird of Venezuela, which is listed in another student’s essay.

Although that is more common in teacher talk than this, teachers utilize both these demonstratives to draw students’ attention into and away from their proximal space to expand the perceived classroom space. In contrast, learners tend to bring the teacher into their speaker territory rather than shift the focus away from them as the center to a much lesser degree, and thus seem to contract the classroom space. This notion of space contraction and expansion is further realized in EAP learners’ and teachers’ employment of locative adverbs, here and there.

Locative Adverbs “here” and “there” in Learner and Teacher Talk

Table 6.3 shows that both the learners and teachers favored here over there. In the L2CD-S, nearly 77% of the adverbs are here, while, in the L2CD-T, approximately 74% are here. Biber et al. (1999) states that these place adverbs are common in casual conversations, and that there is preferred over here when referencing locations. It seems that in classroom interactions, however, not only are they less frequent in both learner and teacher talk, at least in comparison to demonstrative spatial deictics, there is much less common than here. As Bamford (2004
Table 6.3

Comparison of “here” and “there” in the two sub-corpora






Per 1000 words


Per 1000 words














*A log-likelihood greater than 3.84 indicates a p-value less than 0.05

) points out, different registers and genres use spatial deixis in different ways.

In her study, Bamford (2004) also found that the relative frequency of here is rather low in university lectures. Although she only provided the raw totals of here, we were able to establish normalized frequencies because the sizes of the two corpora used were reported. In her data, here on average only occurred 3.33 ptw in MICASE lectures, while it appeared even less frequently in the Siena corpus (2.35 ptw). The difference in frequency between the EAP teachers and university lecturers may be attributed to the greater need to physically contextualize lesson content and activities in EAP classrooms than university lectures, in which the lecturers cover a large amount of dense subject concepts and ideas. Therefore, academic lecturers may rely more on other linguistic means to direct and guide learners’ focus through the cognitively challenging task of listening to lectures over a lengthy period of time (Lee and Subtirelu 2015). Upon examining potential clusters, no lexical phrases with here or there that met our criteria were found, and therefore we do not discuss this any further.

The disproportionally greater use of here in the L2CD-S also points to learners’ confining the classroom space primarily within their speaker territory and anchoring the point of reference in egocentric ways, mainly focused on their individual interest. With the greater use of here, EAP learners appear to reduce the spatial context of the classroom to the vicinity nearest to them.

Text Samples 6.4 (21–27) Locative Adverbs in Learner and Teacher Talk


S: here. I have it here. (L2CD-S-5)


S: oh you put here you put here. (L2CD-S-9)

In (21), the student responds to the teacher’s query about the outline of her essay, and in (22), the learner attempts to draw the teacher’s attention to something on her mid-semester evaluation report, a report given to students at this IEP to show their progress. Locating the referent close to them may not, to a certain extent, be surprising as learners in many ways are restricted to their speaker territory, as teachers regulate learners’ positioning within the classroom. However, as discussed below, they made very little use of there, thus suggesting that greater emphasis is placed on their individual, proximal interest than that of the class.

As mentioned above, the teachers also favored here to there. Not only is here much more frequent than there in the L2CD-T, but the teachers also used the proximal deictic significantly more frequently than learners, as shown in Table 6.3. In fact, it appears two times more frequently in the teacher sub-corpora than the learner sub-corpora.

T: this is a document. so let’s take a look at, some of the abbreviations. you have categories, so, we have verb mistakes here, and there’re abbreviations like this, V T, you might be familiar with these from other teachers.

In (23), the teacher draws all learners’ attention to the verb mistake, which is accompanied by her pointing to the document displayed on the screen. Through their use of here, EAP teachers are able to not only cater to the linguistic needs of L2 learners, but also “to create rapport with student listeners” (Bamford 2004, p. 136), as the use of here can help to establish a sense of shared contextual and cognitive referents. Thus, unlike EAP learners, teachers’ use of here seems to be focused more on viewing the classroom as a shared space.

This notion of sharing the classroom space is further suggested by teachers’ significantly greater use of there than learners, as shown in Table 6.3. The learners rarely used there, and when they did, the referent was mostly a location outside of the immediate context of the classroom:

S: i don’t know where is there. (L2CD-S-3)


S: yeah, because i know how to go there and the end if i go (L2CD-S-22)

In both examples, the learners refer to places unrelated to the immediate situation of the classroom. This may suggest that learners restrict their use of locative adverbs to referents closest to them, thus contracting the classroom space. The teachers, on the other hand, used there primarily to locate entities within the classroom:

T: i want you to take a look at the little vocabulary list there, just see if you can match, those, definitions to the words that are in those sentences. so take a minute, and do that. (L2CD-T-8)


T: yeah just write on there and i and i’ll put it up there and i’ll give it back to you. (L2CD-T-13)

In (26), there is used to point to the vocabulary list on the sheet that the teacher distributed to the students. This use of there locates the referent in the teacher’s distal territory but the students’ proximal territory. The teacher in (27) uses there first to indicate that the student should write the sentence on her paper, thus distancing the teacher from the referent. However, in the second use of there, the referent is the document camera used in the classroom to display images, including papers, on the screen. The referent in this case is not proximal to the student, but distal to both teacher and student. While there, as a distal deictic, is considered to locate the referent to the hearer’s proximal territory, EAP teachers commonly use there to refer to a space distant to both the teachers and learners. In doing so, they expand the perceived classroom space in their effort to create a context that is shared by all participants. Nonetheless, compared to this and that, both learners and teachers did not make much use of locative adverbs in their conceptualization of classroom space and each other.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eric Friginal
    • 1
  • Joseph J. Lee
    • 2
  • Brittany Polat
    • 3
  • Audrey Roberson
    • 4
  1. 1.Applied Linguistics and ESLGeorgia State UniversityAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.Ohio UniversityAthensUSA
  3. 3.Georgia State UniversityAtlantaUSA
  4. 4.Hobart and William Smith CollegesGenevaUSA

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