Vol. 4. No. 4 R-19 December 2000
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Conversation Analysis

Numa Markee (2000)
Lawrence Earlbaum Associates
Pp. xv + 216
ISBN 0-8058-2000-0 (paper)
US $22.50 (also available in cloth, US $45.00)

In Conversation Analysis, Markee describes how this research method can be applied to the analysis and understanding of instructed second language learning behaviors as revealed in transcribed data. This methodology is an excellent addition to Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research because it outlines a way that can empirically illuminate how on-line, socially constructed conversation contributes to the speakers' understanding and use of new language, specifically definitions of new vocabulary. This methodology is a fresh breeze for the theory-driven, experimental, and quantitative approaches usually associated with SLA research.

This book is part of Lawrence Earlbaum's Second Language Acquisition Research series.[1] This series describes various data-collection methods in SLA research, their applications, and their strengths and weaknesses.

The book has a clear table of contents, an extremely useful list of abbreviations, three appendices (one for transcript conventions, the other two containing the corpora which are analyzed in the book), an excellent reference bibliography, an author index, and a very useful subject index.

Conversation Analysis is divided into three major sections. Part I, "Issues and Definitions," contains 3 chapters that discuss an overview of SLA studies, conversation analysis (CA), and practical issues dealing with data collection and analysis. Part II, "Locating Interactional Competence," contains 3 chapters that explain the theoretical underpinnings of CA, sequential organization, turn-taking and repair, and how they can depict interactional competence. Part III contains 2 chapters that illustrate the analysis of two collections of talk using Markee's CA method.

Part I outlines the theoretical basis, describes CA in general and gives the "nuts and bolts" of doing CA in practice. In chapter 1, Markee states that SLA studies can make contributions to both theories of language learning and language teaching. He then describes three relevant SLA hypotheses: the discourse hypothesis, the social interactionist hypothesis, and the interactionist hypothesis. The themes in the rest of this book are directly, and heavily, influenced by the first two hypotheses, especially the second.

In chapter 2, Markee gives a succinct history of CA. A list of 4 essential characteristics of CA is followed by a discussion of 3 possible objections to the use of CA in SLA studies, and in each he posits that SLA studies can only be enriched by the use of CA. Finally, he proposes a CA-oriented methodology for a social-interactionist approach to SLA studies based on: a) empirically motivated and emic accounts of exchange systems, b) relevant transcribed data, c) exploiting detailed transcripts, d) identifying successful and unsuccessful short-term learning behaviors, and e) showing how meaning is constructed. [-1-]

Chapter 3 describes recording, transcribing, and analyzing data gathered from talk-in-action. In this chapter, Markee cautions those who might want to do CA casually, and says that at least one year of course work and an apprenticeship with an "established CA practitioner" are necessary to become a skilled CA researcher. With the complexity of gathering and transcribing the data to be analyzed, one could add that strong institutional support for the researcher would also be necessary.

Part II of the book is the heart of the author's description of his CA approach. In chapter 4, a framework for interactional competence is outlined and adapted to the general framework of Anderson and Lynch's (1988) listening comprehension model of schematic knowledge, context, and systemic knowledge. Markee elaborates and changes the model to schematic, interactional, systemic, and lexical knowledge to better describe what happens in conversation. The rest of the chapter reveals the sequential organization of different speech exchange systems based on equal and unequal power, exemplified by ordinary conversation and classroom conversation. The author indicates that using this organizational system is how L2 learners understand types of social acts. He also shows that "task-based, small group-based instruction approximates the open-ended, locally managed organization of ordinary conversation" (p. 75). If this is true, and Markee states that it is premature to assume it is, this would have major consequences in developing a theory of teaching and classroom practices which arise from empirical data, rather than from a particular philosophy.

In chapter 5, equal and unequal power relationships are shown to create a finite set of turn-taking rules. Turns in ordinary conversation and traditional language classroom talk are then contrasted according to management, number of speakers at one time, length, grammatical make-up, length of speech event, and content. In chapter 6, repair in equal and unequal power situations is viewed by the author not as an impediment to conversational flow, but as what enables speakers to maintain their social relationships and construct shared conversational meaning. In spite of this, Markee views repair as a necessary but dispreferred conversational activity, due to face-saving and other issues.

In Part III of the book, two extended examples of the methodology in action are given, one instance of comprehended input leading to successful learning and understanding and one instance which is not successful. In chapter 7, the author demonstrates that his CA-oriented methodology works well in describing the co-constructed learning and understanding of the word "coral" in an open-ended exchange of information that was filmed in a classroom, transcribed, and is part of a larger corpus. In chapter 8, another classroom task was filmed and transcribed; the phrase "We cannot get by Auschwitz," which arose from the content of the task, was analyzed with the CA-oriented methodology. However, even though one participant understood each word, the participant could not understand the cultural and discoursal significance; therefore, no co-constructed learning and understanding took place.

Markee argues that CA is a powerful tool for SLA and that SLA researchers can gain many new viewpoints into language learning and therefore language teaching by using CA. His two analyses rightfully show that what it means to understand input is more complex than usually thought, due to understanding being not an all-or-nothing proposition but rather comprised of many levels, any of which may or may not be understood. In the conclusion, he suggests that SLA theorists reevaluate how learners' problems are classified and how input is conceptualized in L2 acquisition. [-2-]

In this otherwise well-organized book, the list of abbreviations and the transcript conventions in the micro-analytical transcripts were in different places, with the abbreviations at the beginning of the book and the conventions in appendix 1 at the end. At first, thumbing back and forth while reading the book was inconvenient; I should have photocopied the pages. However, this was a minor annoyance.

The book is written in a clear, interesting, yet challenging style. It is not best suited for an introductory course for teachers or future SLA researchers. It would be of most use to the experienced teacher or upper-level research student interested in how conversation analysis can be used to analyze language learning in the classroom. Teachers would gain new perspectives about task design and input that would best lead to vocabulary acquisition, along with an understanding of how learners may grasp one level of meaning and not others. Researchers would benefit from a solid approach to data analysis from a classroom corpus.

End Note

[1] Other books in this series which are reviewed in this or previous issues of TESL-EJ include:


Anderson, A. & Lynch, T. (1988) Language teaching: Listening. London: Oxford University Press.

Jim Bame
Utah State University
<fabame@cc.usu.edu >

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