Critique of Vowel-marking as an Interactional Resource in Japanese Novice ESL Conversation article by Donald Carroll

The article “Vowel-marking as an Interactional Resource in Japanese Novice ESL Conversation” by Donald Carroll seeks to argue that albeit vowel-marking has its roots in L1 phonological patterns, it is not oriented to by novice L2 speakers as a pronunciation problem; rather, it is utilized as an ideal resource for organizing aspects of their interaction. Thus, Carroll is of the opinion that the most common use of vowel-marking is in the conversational phenomenon of forward-oriented repair and vowel-marking is also implicated in the management of overlap resolution and formulation of multi-TCU projects (Carroll, 2005, p. 215). In this regard, the main research questions for the study conducted by Carroll include:

  • How is vowel-marking utilized by Japanese teachers and students?
  • Is the use of vowel-marking by students and teachers in Japanese novice ESL conversations deliberate or not?
  • How does the utilization of vowel-marking enhance or hinder Japanese novice ESL conversations?

The data utilized in the study was collected through a set of seven face-to-face English conversations that were recorded in the fall of 1999. This process took approximately thirty minutes for every face-to-face conversation with most examples being derived from the group six conversations.

The population utilized in the research for purposes of collecting data involved participants who were second-year English Department students at Shikoku Gakuin University in Japan at the time of recording. The sampling process involved participants choosing their own groupings of three so as to avoid a “guinea pig” scenario as advocated by Wagner with most participants electing to be grouped with their friends or long-time classmates (Carroll, 2005, p. 215).

The process of data collection as exemplified in the article involved each group being given numerous opportunities over several weeks to engage in conversations before the recordings were made by Carroll in a quiet area close to the classroom that is commonly utilized by students. The settings for the recorded conversations employed in this research were well-designed and in line with the standards of research discussed in class.

The data amassed from the recordings of the conversations was transcribed and later sorted to find patterns of vowel-marking in the conversations of the students, as well as, the use or omission of vowels in the pronunciations of the students. The data analyzed was presented in numerical, percentage and tabulated forms, as well as, the use of pictures to show the gestures and conversation patterns of the students. These forms of data presentation utilized in the research were ideal for helping readers discern the concepts of communication put forward by the author.

There are methodological and practical conclusions that can be drawn from the research conducted by Carroll on vowel-marking. For instance, ESL teachers keen on ridding their Japanese students’ speech of vowel-marking should forget ridicule and pronunciation drills and instead focus on training students to utilize interactionally-equivalent conversational micro-practices, such as, um and uh. Moreover, the study of vowel-marking brings to light the problems facing analysts of nonnative discourse such as slipping into linguistic stereotyping when capturing the sound of anomalous language on transcript. Another conclusion from the research on vowel-marking is that there is a possibly translent nature of certain interactional practices in conversations among the ‘not-yet-competent’ speakers of a second language. Thus, researchers can expect to discover greater individual speaker variation with regard to the specific practices they utilize. These conclusions are justified in light of the data presented in this study.

The main implication of the research conducted by Carroll on vowel-marking is that vowel-marking present in conversations by Japanese novice English speakers cannot be simply ascribed to LI phonological interference; rather, the utilization and orientation to vowel-marking by the novice speakers is because they perceive it as an ideal resource in the management of their conversational interaction. Thus, the ways through which the novice speakers employ vowel-marking point to the little evaluated range of interactional competencies adult speakers include in their conversations in another language. As such, one of the most significant contributions conversation analysis can make to applied linguistics is to condemn and eradicate the crude stereotype of language learners as unsophisticated and deficient communicators. These implications are warranted in light of the findings of the study.