To go big, first think small

We use language all of the time. Because of this, we are all experts in language use. As native speakers of a language, we are experts in the intricacies of that language.

Why, then, do people study linguistics? Aren’t we all linguists?

Absolutely not.

We are experts in *using* language, but we are not experts in the methods we employ. Believe it or not, much of the process of speaking and hearing is not conscious. If it was, we would be sensorally overwhelmed with the sheer volume of words around us. Instead, listening comprehension involves a process of merging what we expect to hear with what we gauge to be the most important elements of what we do hear. The process of speaking involves merging our estimates of what the people we communicate with know and expect to hear with our understanding of the social expectations surrounding our words and our relationships and distilling these sources into a workable expression. The hearer will reconstruct elements of this process using cues that are sometimes conscious and sometimes not.

We often think of language as simple and mechanistic, but it is not simple at all. As conversational analysts, our job is to study conversation that we have access to in an attempt to reconstruct the elements that constituted the interaction. Even small chunks of conversation encode quite a bit of information.

The process of conversation analysis is very much contrary to our sense of language as regular language users. This makes the process of explaining our research to people outside our field difficult. It is difficult to justify the research, and it is difficult to explain why such small pieces of data can be so useful, when most other fields of research rely on greater volumes of data.

In fact, a greater volume of data can be more harmful than helpful in conversation analysis. Conversation is heavily dependent on its context; on the people conversing, their relationship, their expectations, their experiences that day, the things on their mind, what they expect from each other and the situation, their understanding of language and expectations, and more. The same sentence can have greatly different meanings once those factors are taken into account.

At a time when there is so much talk of the glory of big data, it is especially important to keep in mind the contributions of small data. These contributions are the ones that jeopardize the utility and promise of big data, and if these contributions can be captured in creative ways, they will be the true promise of the field.

Not what language users expect to see, but rather what we use every day, more or less consciously.


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