1. C: I think uh we should have the do:ctor to
2. (H) [if] if you go to an an
3. J: [a:h]
4. C: new space
5. J: mm hm
6. C: yeah but if you sick or illness
7. J: mm hm
8. C: then
9. you might be die/ @@[@@ yeah]
10. J: [@ah yeah]
11. J: @@[@]
12. C: [@]@@@
13. J: .yeah it’s a little bit
15. Basic and important
2.1 (0.9) (H) (1.4)
22. I think ah
24. ^person wh:o
25. Build the houses
26. Is al[s:o]
27. C: [Oh ye<@ah@> @]
28. J: important
29. (H) becau[se] ^we cannot live if we
30. C: [(H)]
31, J: it doesn’t have the (/ha:da/)
33. C: ye[ah]/
34. J: [or] buildings
35. C: yeah/
36. J: yeah\
37. C: ..if w:e
39. Stay:ed outside
40. Every-if-ah everyone stays
41. ..outside (H)
42. S:o that: we have to show the privacy [actu<@ally@>@@]
43. C: @[@@@]
45. J: that’s a little bit problem
46. C: (H)
47. J: [ye]ah\
48. C: (H)
49. J: so we need a person who build the houses @
50. C: yeah?/
51. J: ye:ah\
Transcriber’s notes: There have been some technical difficulties in formatting when using this file in different versions of Microsoft word. Depending on which version is used to open this file, it is possible indenting of lines might be slightly off, or that the backslash mark might read as the Japanese Yen symbol.
Part 3: Spoken Text Analysis
In this section, I will analyze the conversation transcribed in part 2. I will start by looking at the participants and the setting, and theorize what effect they might have had on the conversational structure. Then I will do a brief analysis of the conversation itself, and finally I will look at the role of laughter in this conversation.
Participants and Setting
This conversation takes place between two non-native speakers of English. Both are apparently classmates in the same school, and therefore we can assume that under normal circumstances they are of equal status.
(According to the speech event form, one of them is five years older than the other, which might theoretically result in a dominant status (at least in Japanese culture), but this does not come through in the conversation.)
In an ESL classroom setting, the primary marker of status might be English fluency. And although both women appear to be very fluent, the first one starts out at a very fast, almost native like rate. This is something the second speaker has difficulty matching, and in this way the first speaker might be thought of as the more dominant one.
The most obvious thing about this conversation is of course that it takes place in the L2 of both participants. This is evident not only from the accent, but from the many ungrammatical features such as “that’s a little bit problem,” or “if you sick or illness.”
And the limited knowledge of vocabulary (and perhaps grammar structures) also seems to set limits on the scope of the conversation. For example, after the first speaker’s turn ended, speaker two spent several lines where she appeared to be trying to think of the appropriate English vocabulary. Unable to locate a word like carpenter in her L2 vocabulary, she then settled for circumlocution: “person who build the houses.”
It is possible that if the conversation had taken place in her L1, the wider range of vocabulary options readily available to her would not only have speeded up the process, but might have even changed the utterance. (She might have opted to say something with a much more complex meaning instead.)
Although this recording was made outside of actual class time, it was recorded on campus in the presence of the teacher. This may have caused the participants to think (or perhaps subconsciously feel) that their English skills were being evaluated, and therefore caused them to speak not in a natural way, but in a way similar to structured classroom language practice. Indeed, the conversation does bear some hallmarks of a structured conversation practice that might take place in an ESL classroom. For example, the topic has already been selected for the speakers, and they dutifully stick to it.
The preselected topic results in a conversation that is unnatural in a couple of ways. For one thing, this means there is no instances of new topic selection occurring in the recording. Secondly, the speakers are under pressure to stick to the topic even when it appears they do not have anything ready to say about it.
Another unnatural feature of this conversation is that the participants show a reluctance to allow pauses or silences, perhaps because they fear that silence will be taken as a sign of lack of proficiency in English. There are some periods of silence in the conversation, but they are not natural silences that might occur between topics. Instead they are silences where one speaker is desperately trying to think of something to say next.
The structure of the conversation also perhaps produces an artificial sense of turn taking similar to structured classroom language practice. Once one speaker has identified a passenger for the spaceship, and given a reason why, it seems to be understood that the next person should select another passenger rather than carry on with the topic of the previous passenger. And so a new speaker seems to signify not only a new turn, but a new topic. (Or that is, a new subtopic (the next passenger) within the broader preselected topic of the conversation.)
Within the selected minute (which admittedly may or may not be representative of the longer conversation) both participants stick to this structure rigidly. And, also as with a structured language conversation, both seem to be aware of the unwritten rule that they are supposed to share the conversation time equally, instead of having one participant dominate the conversation. The different speakers provide forms of back channeling when another speaker is holding the floor, but there is no attempt to take over the turn or provide additional information until one speaker has finished a thought.
The selected recording begins midway through the conversation. The first speaker is expressing an idea, and for the initial few lines the second speaker only provides back channeling responses such as “a:h” and “mmm hmm.”
However the first speaker ends her turn with the phrase, “you might be die.” Semantically, not only does this represent the conclusion of the line of argument (the reason why a doctor is needed) but the upward intonation on the end of the word die clearly indicates a turn finishing. The laughter immediately following provides further evidence the turn has finished.
After the shared laughter finishes, the second speaker then picks up on these cues and begins her turn.
It appears that she knows it is her turn, and is well aware she is supposed to say something, but is unsure of what to say. She seems eager to talk, as is evident that her first few words come out almost as soon as the previous speaker has finished her last beat of laughter. Furthermore her first phrase is spoken at a rapid natural speed (which is impressive for an ESL student).
However the content of what she says is essential gibberish. “Yeah, it’s a little bit, very, basic and important component.”
Making allowances for the fact that she is speaking her L2, we could possibly reinterpret this to mean, “Yes, I agree, that’s very important.” But even with this interpretation, the meaning doesn’t come out until the last few lines. The first couple lines seem to be meaningless, and even contradictory, such as “it’s a little bit, very.”
This indicates she might have started speaking before she had fully formulated what she was going to say. She simply realized that it was her turn, and felt that she had to say something.
Once she has expressed agreement with the previous idea, she then knows that she must then identify another candidate passenger, under the unwritten rules that seem to be operating for this conversation on a preselected topic.
This does not come easy to her however.
It appears that either she does not have a candidate readily in mind, or else she is struggling to put her thoughts into her L2. Or perhaps a little bit of both. This is evident by the fact that it takes her about 10 seconds to say anything of substance (a long time by conversational standards).
With the exception of one long pause (which either can be counted as slightly over two seconds, or as two different one second pauses separated by an intake of breath) she does not remain silent during this time. Instead she fills the space with several utterances: “the, ah, also, mmmm, I think ah, uh.”
Some of these can possibly be identified as false starts, specifically utterances that form actual words with semantic meanings like “the,” “also,” and “I think.” (Or, even though they are separated from the main utterance by several filler words, you could consider “also” and “I think” not as false starts but continuous with the main clause, as in “Also, I think a person who builds….”)
However the other words, “ah,” “uh,” and “mmmm,” are simply being used as place holders without any semantic meaning.
These place holders can hold one of two purposes depending on what assumptions we make about the speaker’s motivation. It is possible she is using them simply as a sign of politeness to acknowledge that she knows it’s her turn to speak, and to indicate to the other speaker that she intends to perform her conversational obligations.
However if we assume that she is speaking not just out of a sense of obligation, but that she actually wants to speak, then these place holders serve to prevent her from losing her turn.
(And again, here the fact that this is an ESL conversation taking place in a classroom-like setting maybe influencing things. In a normal conversation, a speaker who did not have anything to say might have been perfectly happy to let the conversation revert back to another speaker who did. In this case, the speaker might have felt some pressure to demonstrate her English abilities, and would have regarded the loss of a turn as a defeat in this regard.)
Speaker two also has several false starts later on in her utterance. She starts out with everyone (truncated into “every-“), switches to “if”, goes to a place holder “ah” and then returns to everyone. All of this happens in quick succession and she makes all the corrections herself.
The Use of Laughter
One of the interesting things about this conversation is the use of laughter to mark a turn ending. Again, without knowing the minds of the participants it is difficult to be certain what it exactly signifies. A certain amount of it may be just a result of nervousness (perhaps the result of speaking in a foreign language on a restricted topic in front of their teacher and a recording device) or relief at finishing their turn.
Or, if participants feel insecure about their English abilities, this might be a face saving way of turning their embarrassment into humor by allowing them to laugh at themselves. It is notable that the sustained laughter always occurs after obviously ungrammatical English: “you might be die,” and “we have to show the privacy.”
On the other hand, it is clear the participants are approaching this topic in a bit of a playful way. Each candidate for the spaceship is argued for in primarily negative instead of positive terms. That is, they are regarded as essential members not so much in terms of the benefits they would bring, but because of the bad situation that would result from their absence. And the humor comes from the contrast between the horrors of the hypothetical situation, and the casualness with which the participants describe it. “You might be die,” is a particularly unsympathetic way to describe the thought of one’s own death by treatable diseases in the absence of a qualified physician, and the contrast between the event being described and the tenor of language used is probably intentionally playful here.
In the same way, “we have to show the privacy,” is a bit of a ridiculous way of describing the hardships that would result from lack of adequate shelter.
Viewed in this way, the purpose of each turn is not only to complete an argument, but also to build up to a humorous punch line. When one or both participants start laughing, it is a cue that the punch line has been reached, and the purpose of the utterance has been concluded. In this way laughter can be seen as an agreement by both speakers that one turn has ended.
When the speaker starts laughing first (as in the “you might be die”) it may be to cue the listener in that the utterance has been completed.
When the listener starts laughing first (as in “we have to show the privacy”) it sends a signal back to the speaker that the humor of the utterance has been understood, and the joke was successful.
In almost all cases were laughter occurs, the participants have a strong tendency to overlap. Particularly if there is a longer period of laughter by one participant, it is always joined by the other one. This maybe a way for participants to show solidarity with each other, although what they are showing solidarity on (relief, nervousness, being able to laugh at one’s L2 shortcomings, or the conclusion of a humorous idea) may depend on what motivations we ascribe to the laughter.