‘One thing which makes us find so few people who appear reasonable and agreeable in conversation is, that there is scarcely any one who does not think more of what he is about to say than of answering precisely what is said to him.’ –
— François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)
To master a language is a difficult task for many persons, and to master it in its spoken form even takes more time than learning a new language. Confusions and misunderstandings are commonly observed in conversation. Consider the following example,
Fredrick: O Jesus! Suddenly the rain started to pour down! But Suki was so smart that she entered the hall immediately.
Kelven: Oh how come she could enter the hall? Did she know the people there?
Fredrick: What do you mean Kelven? Wasn’t she living in the hall?
In the example illustrated, Kelven probably fails to understand what is implicated by Fredrick’s utterance. Though Fredrick, in this example, has also used a misleading expression in referring to the hall where Suki was residing, a misunderstanding was thus caused. (Schlesinger and Hurvitz, 1969)
Misunderstanding can cause a lot of troubles and we have to avoid them. But what are the reasons of causing those misunderstandings? Why in different situations we interpret a speech differently? How can people open and close a conversation well? And the ultimate problem can be, ‘What is conversation and its underneath principles of operations?’. The topic of conversation analysis, which is a particular and very important area of discourse analysis, will deal with the problems said.
Chapter 8.1A – A brief definition of conversation analysis
Conversation analysis is a branch of sociology which studies the detailed organization and structure of human conversational interactions in everyday lives; both in verbal and non-verbal sense. (Hutchby and Wooffitt, 2008)
In conversation analysis, the structure, orderliness, and sequential patterns in interactions are discussed and studied. (Sidnell, 2010)These sorts of interactions can either be institutional or just in daily, casual conversation. Linguists of conversation analysis are always interested in how we, as language-users, are able to deliver an idea to make others understand about it, and at the same time how we understand the oral language that we hear. (Wang, 2010) It is not only used in linguistics, but it is also a popular concept used in psychology, history, anthropology, etc. (Sidnell, 2010)
This subject, like the others, is a progressive development. In the next chapter, the history and changes of conversation analysis throughout the years will be introduced.
Chapter 8.1B – History and development of conversation analysis
The history of conversation analysis can be dated back to late 1960s to early 1970s. The development of it was first inspired by Ethnomethodology, which is a method for understanding how people use social orders to understand the world, by analyzing their descriptions and stories of their daily activities across a long period (Karamjit S. Gill, 1996). Later, sociologist Harvey Sacks with his close associates Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson, define the term in their book Lectures on Conversation, and the study of conversation analysis has soon drawn a great attention from scholars. (Emanuel and Gail, 1972)
With over 50 years of development, today it has become a well-known and widely-used research method in social sciences, linguistics, psychology, speech-communication and anthropology. (Carol, 2010) Its influence in interactional sociolinguistics is particular important as it forms a part in both discursive psychology and discourse analysis. (Levinson, 1983) Moreover, in its own right it has also become an important discipline.
In recent years, the techniques of conversation analysis have seen being employed in a number of other subjects, like NLP practitioners use the technique to understand the real feeling of a person (Tosey and Mathison 2006); and phoneticians try to use it to explore the fine phonetic detail of speech (Kelly and Local, 1989).
After having a brief overview of conversation analysis, the detailed elements of it will be introduced in the next chapter.
Chapter 8.1C – Assumptions and principles of conversation analysis
We do conversations each and every day, with our friends, parents, colleagues and teachers, etc. In making these daily conversational exchanges, people always follow a set of orders or conventions, both consciously and subconsciously. The orders and conventions are different in different occasions. (Sacks, 1992) And, we learn those orders and conventions since they were young and the process of learning is continuous in one’s life. Participants in daily conversations have responsibility to produce interpretable messages and to acknowledge the messages received; based on the orders and conventions, to create a successful conversation. George Pasthas (1995) in his book raises the following assumptions and principles of conversation analysis;
Order is produced by orderliness.
Order is situated and occasioned.
Order is oriented by the parties involved in a conversation only. The analyst holds no conceptions in it.
Order is repeatable and recurrent.
The discovery, description and analysis of that produced orderliness are the tasks of the analyst.
Frequencies and varieties of particular phenomena occur are to be set aside in studying the ways in which order is produced.
Structures of social actions, once discerned, shall be able to be described and analyzed in formal forms.
These principles and assumptions are widely accepted (George, 1995) and conversation analysts nowadays still have their analysis done in this way. In the following chapter, the detailed methodology of how a conversation analysis is conducted will be introduced.
Chapter 8.1D – Methodology of conversation analysis
Similar to other researches, a research on conversation analysis is initiated by setting up a research problem. In normal circumstances, video or audio recorded conversations are used as raw data for conversation analysis. To ensure that data collected is not ‘artificial’, often it is simply collected by adding a video camera to the room where the conversation takes place (e.g. medical doctors consultation with a patient), without involvements of researchers. (Have, 2007)
At the same time, the researchers make a detailed transcription, assuming that no details of the conversation have been omitted. The researchers, after the transcription, will then have an inductive data-driven analysis aiming to find recurring patterns of interaction. Based on the result of the analysis, a rule or model to explain the occurrence of the patterns is then developed. Conversation in discourse is mutually constructed and negotiated in time between speakers, which is unplanned and informal. (Cook, 1989)
Chapter 8.7 – Conclusion
In short, conversation analysis deals with our daily verbal exchanges, which are vital in daily lives of each and every one of us.
Interpreting daily conversations, we now understand, is a highly complex and complicated process. It has long been believed that the meaning has been there already in a piece of oral language. But after studying this chapter, we find that the said definition is far too simplistic. We think that we do not plan before having a conversation with the others. But we apply different strategies indeed but they are seldom noticed. A speaker has to plan well before delivering a speech; and a hearer also has to work quite hard in order to process a piece of conversation indeed. Even the simplest conversation involves many complex decisions.
We cover a few key aspects of conversation analysis, which includes turn-taking, overlapping, repairs, silences, sequence and transcription. We also try to analyze a conversation by following a set of transcription conversations.
The question stated at the beginning, ‘What is conversation? And what is its underneath principles?’, has been answered by conversation analysis. Through studying it, we learn how to communicate with others well, and most importantly, how to use the principles to live well on this Earth.
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