Natter matters

Page No.: 
Scott Gardner

Word’s around that some of my friends in language teaching are into conversation analysis. (I only know through hearsay because I’m afraid to talk to them anymore.) They record everyday conversations and analyze them carefully for whatever linguistic phenomena they think are important: length of turns, interruptions, communicative strategies, or occurrences of the word “paradigm.” Think of it as a linguist’s drinking game (“Three hedges in one turn! Six shots!”), but usually without the drinking. 

Conversation analysis (or CA) has really taken off as a research area since American president George W. Bush authorized secret government wiretapping and email surveillance in the early 2000s. The recording of conversations for analysis has skyrocketed, to the point where it’s difficult to go through a day of interacting with people without someone tapping their backpack-secreted hypercardioid microphone and saying, “I’m getting some interference. Could you repeat what you just said, this time a little louder with a more menacing Eastern European accent? Don’t worry, it’s for my podcast.” 

Once you get enough conversations recorded, you have to go home and transcribe them for analysis. This involves listening to the conversations over and over again to make sure that you correctly transcribe what the speakers say. It’s imperative, for example, that you make absolutely certain your boss sang “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” rather than “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” at karaoke last weekend. Furthermore, you need to pay attention to other conversational elements that we normally don’t give much thought to, such as repair segments, laughter tokens, elbow-jab tokens, and length of pauses. Look at transcript (1) below, recorded at my house sometime during summer vacation: 

A: Are you listening to me? 
(15 mins) 
B: Huh? 

CA researchers would say that the time interval between A’s question and B’s response conveys a message—perhaps about the speakers’ relationship—beyond the actual words used. (I would add that the icy stare and slammed door that followed also conveyed a message.) 

Other conversations may take place at normal rates, and yet still show qualities that indicate they are not accomplishing the goals of the interlocutors—sort of like the famous musical composition by John Cage in which two performers are in separate rooms and can’t hear what each other is playing: 

A: So I need you to put gas in the car before Saturday’s picnic. 
B: What is this? Bubonic cucumber? 
A: It’s a bitter gourd. It’s good for you. And it would be nice if the back seat was vacuumed out. There’s still sand on the floor. 
B: Oh, you idiot! Can’t you even block a shot without breaking a guy’s leg? Now they get a free kick! 
A: Did you hear me? 
B: Don’t wash those socks on the floor. They’re still cleanish. 
A: "Cleanish?"
B: I need to return some rental DVDs tonight. Is there any gas in the car? 

So CA is capable of measuring both language use and the varying social investment of speakers as they converse. This makes it beneficial not only as an anal-retentive linguistic bean counting exercise but as data for real world applications like marriage counseling or bluffing in a poker game. 

Let me close today’s boring, one-sided conversation by presenting one final transcript and asking you to analyze it yourself. What lengths does B go to in order to repair the following conversation? 

A: You know what? 
B: What? 
A: I don’t know. 
B: You don’t know what? 
A: That’s why I asked you. 
B: Asked me what? 
A: Yeah. 

(Discussion: A’s deceptive pre-sequence is obviously intended to press B’s buttons just for a laugh, probably because he knows he’s being recorded. Try initiating this conversation with someone you don’t like very much.)