LINGUIST List 11.1410

Sun Jun 25 2000

Review: Markee: Conversation Analysis

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

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  1. Ron Bonham, Review: Conversation Analysis -- Markee

Message 1: Review: Conversation Analysis -- Markee

Date: Fri, 16 Jun 2000 23:09:21 -0700
From: Ron Bonham <>
Subject: Review: Conversation Analysis -- Markee

Markee, Numa (2000) Conversation Analysis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence 
Erlbaum Associates, 2000

Reviewed by Ron Bonham, Malaspina University-College

Numa Markee's book, Conversation Analysis, is an alternative, and,
admittedly, even 'heretical' approach to examining CA methodology,
especially in relation to SLA (Second Language Acquisition) research. This
work is, in fact, one in a series of SLA research monographs published by
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates intended to advance the critical study and
application of methodologies of potential benefit to SLA research. Implicit
to the series, and in particular to Markee's critical examination of the
base assumptions of SLA, is the need to bring an empirical, qualitative, and
detailed examination of the workings of conversation to a discussion which
has long emphasized (at times in an exclusionary, even elitist manner) a
rationalist/ theoretical perspective.

Markee's book has both the drawbacks and advantages of a monograph. It is
compact and well-organized but quite dense in research and analysis. A book
of 166 text pages, it nonetheless draws upon 20 pages of references and has
extensive notes, tables, and a detailed appendix. Thus, the reader is
challenged to assimilate a considerable body of information in a compact
presentation. Markee's language is also made complex by jargon and the
condensed analysis of detailed research. Thus, on the first page of her
work, the author refers to 'predominantly nomoethetic epistemology' and to
'micro-moments of socially distributed cognition instantiated in
conversational behavior' (3). The opening chapter also offers distilled
analysis of discourse hypothesis, social interaction hypothesis, and
interactionist hypothesis. Although Conversation Analysis offers interesting
data and praxis of benefit to language pedagogy, the material and its
presentation require some familiarity with acquisition theory and research.
Knowledge of discourse analysis and of ethnomethodology would be of definite
help as well.

There are some issues which are intriguing, but, of necessity, receive
brief, glancing treatment here. Ethical standards of SLA research
(especially given new, potentially invasive technology), the implications of
gestural context, and locating of the boundaries between language
acquisition and use, for example, are merely adumbrated given the limits of
the monograph and its primary emphasis on the methodological.

Markee's book is structurally well-designed, however, and provides a soundly
scientific approach to microanalysis of conversational data, without
predetermination or assumption. The examination of talk-in-interaction and,
in particular, of the three practices of interactional competence --
sequential organization, turn-taking, and repair-- leads to a rewarding
pay-off in the final two chapters. There, Markee provides discussions of
conversation that leads to understanding and learning (Ch. 7) and that does
not lead to understanding and learning (Ch. 8). The author makes some
important points about how the 'failure to understand' is as significant in
establishing sound methodology as the instances of success as the former
contributes to an all-encompassing understanding of how comprehension works.
The 'emic' and 'ethnomethodological' nature of the approach here shows that
understanding of conversational input is a complex of systemic knowledge
(elements and rules of linguistic grammar) but also of interactional,
lexical, and schematic knowledge.

There are some central and significant points in Markee's work which
contribute to the furthering of SLA research. First, the author shows the
value of detailed and fine-grained examination of conversation where
ethnomethodology not only invites but insists on the validation of all data,
even the single or singular exception. All qualitative data must be examined
and 'analysis must be subject to critical falsification' (29).

Second, Markee offers a 'heretical' correction or balance of perspective on
acquisition which challenges even the epistemological basis of acquisition
theory. CA, in allowing researchers to employ qualitative work to
investigate 'how learners use conversational modifications and whether such
modifications can be shown to result in learning a second language' (44),
fills an important gap in SLA advancement. Most significantly, these
empirically derived data take on not the traditional 'hypothesis-generating
role' but a 'hypothesis-confirming one' so that the methodology becomes
closely allied, and even central, to determining the relationship between
language use and acquisition.

Finally, the details of Markee's fine-grained data collection and the
attendant micro-analysis offer some important considerations for applied
linguistics and second language educators. The value of naturalistic
conditions and ordinary conversation has significant implications, since,
not only do they provide the 'default' here for analysis but they also show
greater impetus for self-regulation. Thus, participants/ learners have the
opportunity 'to repair breakdown in communication and this allows them to
gain access to . . . syntactic richness' (88). Furthermore, the teacher's
use of CQ (D) strategy (Counter Question Display) is less conducive to
problem-solving orientation in speech and is 'therefore acquisitionally less
useful than the open-ended speech system' (77-8).

Markee shows that conversational repair merits significant attention as the
'principal resources that conversationalists have at their disposal to
maintain intersubjectivity, that is to construct shared meanings' (101).
Nonetheless, in spite of its significance, Markee argues that repair is a
'dispreferred' activity, especially when done in excess, as it can be
'face-threatening' (164); also, it is necessary but 'not sufficient to
promot[ing] language learning' (163) as there needs to be some connection to
what speakers know about the world. Thus, the author reminds teachers that
comprehension is complex, dynamic, 'not a simple all-or-nothing construct'
and that often systemic knowledge is only truly validated when supported by
schematic knowledge (background knowledge of the factual/ historical world).
This latter point is evident in the analysis of the difference between
success with understanding the word 'coral' and problems with the phrase 'We
cannot get by Auschwitz'. In both instances, the speakers attempt
definition, move freely between lexical and syntactic levels of discourse,
and explore co-constructed meaning. However, although one can arrive at and
comprehend the constituent parts of the phrase, the metaphorical meaning
still may escape comprehension unless the teacher creates an open
environment and does not focus 'exclusively on linguistic meaning' (159).

Conversation Analysis is a worthwhile work to examine in the advancement of
SLA. It offers a delicate balance between exact, even conservative
methodology and its exciting, even risk-taking implications.

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