Topic Shifting In A Dinner Conversation English Language Essay

Conversation is a very important thing in people’s life, and cannot be separated from it. People communicate with others by using their language in order to share information, to get acquainted with each other and mostly to maintain a social relationship.

In the conversation, not everyone is dealt the same hand, in terms of opportunities to speak and be addressed, and in terms of what each can hope to say as speaker and to hear as addressee. Turn taking is an intrinsic feature of conversation (Wilson, Wiemann & Zimmerman 1984), it also is a basic form of organization in conversation, and a fundamental organization of social interaction. People use turn taking every day when they carry on conversations in every social context; when they talk, they take turns, wait for turns, compete for turns to share their feeling and their knowledge, to give information, to open them and also get the feedback from the other participants. Humans take turns in many different ways: self-election, alternating with another speaker, back channeling, and taking another turn if there is a pause or an interruption in the conversation.

In any conversation, it is impossible for the participants talking about one topic only from beginning to the end. They will change or shift the topic from one to another which may be similar or different. Topic shifts in conversation often happen when speaker transitions break down (after a silence, e.g.), or after a story, the next speaker shift the topic, sometimes they shift back to the previous one, refocus on something (inappropriately) in the previous speaker’s talk, or disagree with the previous speaker, sometimes they do not, either of which can elicit a topic shift. (Maynard, Douglas W, 1980)

Statement of the Problem

In no matter what situation, formal or informal, when people talk naturally, their conversation is goal-oriented, and face-to-face dialogue. They use words, prosody, body language, manual gesture, gaze, facial expressions, and spatial attention via head and eye movements to take their turns, and wait for the turns. However, some people do not pay attention to how the conversation works, and how the conversation is organized, they will talk out of the turn, and cannot get a “turn in edgewise”. If people do not take the turn properly, or take the wrong turn, it will intrrupte the poeple who is in turn, and also the conversation can not go smoothly.

People also will not talk about one topic but would rather relate it to other topics which can be subtopics or new topics, sometimes the other participants do not realize it and as a result they do not produce coherent utterances. The participants think that others still talk about the first topic while actually the topic has already shifted to a new one, which is different from the first one. Therefore, it is important for the participants to notice that shift of the topic in a conversation to keep the conversation flowing well.

Objective of the Study

This study is attempt to provide a description of what happens when more than one persons talk at once in conversation; how the simultaneous talk are organized in the practices; how the turn-taking and topic shifting relate to each other in the conversation. It also tries to explain how people take the turn in the conversation, why they shift the topic from one to a different one.

Section 2: Literature Review

2.1 Conversation Analysis

Schiffrin & Deborah (1989) defined conversation analysis as a subfield of discourse analysis that considers spoken dialogue. Considers what the structure of the conversation might be; how meaning and actions are negotiated in conversation; role of context and social interaction in understanding conversation. According to Lee (1987), people have a variety of implicit and explicit goals when they engage in conversation, the conversation analysis are capable of reflecting them, discerning the distinctions of them, and some other details, such as the number of people present, their personalities and interests, the presence or absence of preexisting relations, and details of the physical surroundings, at least to some extent.

Drew & Heritage (1992) argued that how people use and modify conversational resources to get things done in organizational settings, which frequently involve problematic exchanges. Especially when the interactions of people occupy different institutional roles, the issue of conversational differentiation takes center stage. The interesting theoretical question is then seen to be how these roles get translated into differences, or asymmetries, in conversational entitlements and obligations, but if the people are in the same institutional role, it is vice verse.

Local (1986) argued that conversation participants appear to exploit variable spoken language elements at all linguistic levels (prosodic, phonological, morphological, and syntactic in order to signal contextual presuppositions; and also to utilize resources at the nonverbal level (gestural, kinesic, and proxemic ). In fact, their chief function is to signal participants’ orientation to one another. Sometimes they are used primarily to contextualize the imminent completion of a turn at talk or a topic shift, but at other times they have the capacity to signal the social identities and attitudes of participants.

2.2 Turn Taking

Sacks & Schegloff (1974) devoted much of their effort to the analysis of turn taking in conversation. Turn taking is part of what they call “members’ procedures” of achieving orderly and meaningful communication. The ways in which conversation participants design and modify their utterances are “naturally occurring statements” made by themselves, and how they make sense of each other’s contributions. This tacit, organized reasoning procedure is critical for our understanding of how social relationships are developed and higher-level social orders achieved. The acquired this knowledge of conversational organization can then be applied to institutional organization in order to show how these institutions were “talked into being.”

According to Duncan (1972), people attempt to get the turn by self-selection at a transition relevance place by using methods that are usually successful in face-to-face conversations, such as intake of breath, leaning forward and starting to speak. He suggested several cues that the speaker employs to indicate the end of a turn or invite the hearer to take a turn. These cues include falling pitch at the end of a sentence, the drawl of a syllable at the end of sentence, the termination of a gesture, specific phrases at the end of syntactic units, and changes in gaze direction, such as the speaker’s looking away from the hearer as an utterance begins and toward the hearer as the utterance ends.

Goodwin (1981) elaborated on the role of gaze in turn-taking by considering the gaze of the hearer, and the coordination of the gaze of conversational participants. He claimed that the speaker’s look away at the beginning of turns occurs to avoid overloading information in the planning of an utterance. Gaze behavior has been used in the design of embodied conversational agents, but it may not occur on every occasion.

The absence of turn taking organization would subvert the possibility of stable trajectories of action and responsive action through which goal-oriented projects can be launched and pursued through talk in interaction, whether to success or failure (Schegloff 1988).

2.3 Topic Shifting

Wardhaugh (1971) argued that a conversation usually covers a number of topics and involved shifts from one topic to another, and sometimes also a mix of topic. It means that in a conversation, the speakers do not only talk about one topic from the beginning to the end, but they tend to shift the topic to another one, which can be considered as the sub-topic of the previous topic or a new topic, it is different from the previous one. Similarly, Brown and Yule (1983) agreed that topic shift is the change of topic in a conversation, the speakers add another subject of discussion to the conversation to make the conversation more interesting and effective.

McCarthy (1991) indicated that the topic shifting is very important in keeping the conversation going on and avoiding silence. Therefore, speakers tend to talk not only one topic but also relate to another topic which sometimes has relation with the previous and sometimes dose not, in order to make the conversation going on run smoothly. In addition, Stenstrom (1994) identified five kinds of topic shift which are differentiated in terms of their relation with the previous topic. They are topic shift, topic drift, topic digresses, and topic resume. And also she stated that pauses mark the topic shift.

Section 3: Methodology and Data Collection

3.1 Participants

The participants of this study consisted of seven persons, six females and one male, five are Chinese from China, two are Chinese in local, aged from 24 to 33. One is a reporter of a local Chinese newspaper, six of them are Master students, three of them are studying in the Faculty of Computor Science, while other three are studying in the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, UM. They are from different religious backgroud, one is Christain, one is half Christain, one is Buddhism, one is free thinker, three are Muslin. All of them are singles. They knew each other long time ago, and are quite close friends. Dong was going to China, so Chun orgenized the simple dinner at her house, others were invited to the dinner as well as me.

3.2 Tools and Procedure

In this study, the data was collected by tape-recording and obvervation during an informal and natural setting dinner conversation in the friend’s house, which lasted for one and a half hour. The conversation were transcribed into 18 short segments in terms of the pauses in the conversation. Each of the segments is between at least two persons from the beginning to the end of the dinner.

The tape-recordings were conducted by a hidden mp3 in the natural occurred dinner conversation; the tape-recorder turned on mp3 and joined their conversation, and tried to get talking from every participant, and also observed the participants facial expressions, gestures, body language, gaze, nod and eye movements in the whole process, which the tape-recording cannot get. This made it possible to record the entire verbal interaction from start to finish. Signed consent was obtained from all the subjects.

The tape-recording was transcribed based on the pauses, 18 segments of the turns in this study. Turns were assigned on the transcript when another may or did speak. Based on the definition of a turn the possibility for a single speaker to take several consecutive turns, in a series, or a row, exist. The transcript revealed that speakers took turns not only alternately but consecutively.

Section 4: Data Analysis and Findings

The data was analyzed in this chapter according to the research questions, and the time consequence. From the data we can see that people have different ways to take their turns and have different attentions to shift the topics.

4.1 People in the conversation took their turns in the different ways.

4.1.1 The current speaker always took their turns by self-selection. They selected the turn by looking at that person, or by asking that person a question.  Actually, if the current-speaker wishes to select the next-speaker, he or she will do so prior to the next transition-place,

Dong: Li yan, I read an article….

Dong: Ma pin is very lust, my words are too bad.

Dong: It is delicious.

Dong: You are very sexy today.

Dong: We have a new housemate,

I: Everybody looks at me?

Dong: I met the man today.

Ma: This one is very delicious, Chun cui.

Dong: Chun cui, I want wireless internet, how to equip do you know?

Dong: Nobody spend more than 50 pounds on telephone in UK. Because..

Zhao: When will you give me the past year exam papers?

Zhao: Arabian are very stupid,……

Dong: En…my friend….one of my friends said he ….

Dong: There is a very handsome guy in UM,

Chun: She is the friend of my housemate’s, named Wan Jun, they are my friends.

Dong: You guys should marry the local high class…

Dong: We are the transient guests of Malaysia….

Wan: I knew from internet that Zhang xueyou will….

From the data above, we can see all of the speakers took turns by addressing the person within the group, praising the clothes and food, telling the experience, introducing the newcomer, and asking the questions and so forth, to open a new turn. Because it is a special farewell dinner for Dong, who was going back to China, and also she is a more experienced person in this group, so she took the majority of the turns in order to keep the conversation smoothly and avoid the silence.

4.1.2 Several cues that the current speaker employs to indicate the end of a turn or invite the hearer to take a turn. The second speaker acquires their turns:

First, a person takes the turn after being address, or face to face talking with current speaker, the second speakers receive the turns by being addressed or answering the questions.

Dong: Ma pin is very lust, my words are too bad, ah?

Ma: It is OK that is the fact.

Dong: Why?

I: Nothing, just hate him.

Dong: You are more beautiful recently, yes, definitely.

Li: Really? It is good.

Zhao: Chun cui, can I take some away?

Chun: Sure.

Chun: Who?

Dong: Our new housemate.

Li: En, it is so delicious, how did you cook?

Chun: It was Li Yan did.

I: What did you say just now? What is higher that what?

Dong: Salary is AD6000 (Australia Dollar), allowance is higher than salary.

Dong: Chun cui, I want wireless internet, how to equip it, do you know ?

Chun: I think you should go to the service center.

Zhao: Who told you that?

Dong: I am studying it, how come I don’t know, who told me.

Zhao: Where did you go yesterday?

I: I taught Mandarin to Korean.

Zhao: How many students do you teach?

I: 6 now.

Zhao: When will you give me the past year exam papers?

Chun: I am going to give you on Thursday.

Zhao: How about next Monday? In the evening?

Chun: Ok, maybe I will go to main library to do my assignments, I will give you.

Chun: Can you do it?

Dong: Definitely, big business there, I should work for one year…

Chun: Do you have one year to do that?

Dong: If I do PHD, I can do. The first three months will be difficult, but it will make money since the fifth month.

Chun: But, is the location really very good?

Second, a person speaks after someone else is addressed. That is to say, the current speaker does not select next speaker, the second speaker is self-selected.

The second speakers seize the turns to show their agreement, their knowledge, to avoid the embarrassed and to indicate their curiosity.

Third, a person speaks after someone speaks to the group, then he/ she takes the turn immediately.

The second speakers claim the turn to comfort someone, to answer the questions, to show the humble, to express the agreements and disagreements, and to catch the information.

Fourth, a person is already in possession and continues, no other participant selects him or herself as next speaker, current speaker continue speaking.

The second speakers continue the turns to keep the conversation flowing and avoid the silence by shifting to a new topic.

4.2 People in the conversation shifted many topics.

The topics of the conversation shifted based on the pauses, that also is our definition of the turn. Sometimes one topic was in one turn, sometimes more that one topic in one turn. As a whole. The topic shifted from an article to girlfriend and boyfriend, nice clothes, new housemate, study and emigrant, weight losing, wireless internet, telephone bill, population, exam, assignment doing, business doing, handsome guy, life and study in Malaysia, the job of reporter, violence, marridge, religions, money making, study, famous singer and actresses and so forth. Since this was a dinner conversation, the food was inserted in the conversation from time to time.There are 18 pauses in the conversation, but the topics are 21.

4.2.1 Showing the knowledge

Dong: Li yan, I read an article which was named The same gender group but not gay from the newspaper, it said the some girls rather drink, chat or read with girls than with some boys that they don’t like. A girl said if you want to extricate yourself from this special group, you must pay more attention to whom you love than friends.

Zhao: It is too many Chinese now, the treatment is not very good after emigration.

Dong: Salary is AD6000 (Australia Dollar), allowance is higher that salary.

Chun: Last time we used the wireless internet, why can not it be reached now?

Dong: No signal, I think it is failed for trying. It starts from Block 5, and covers 500 meters. Sometimes it is strong, and sometimes it is very weak.

Dong: Nobody spend more than 50 pounds on telephone in UK. Because..

Li: Because of that, Chinese tourists reduced from 500 thousand to 300 thousand. At the beginning, they said she was not from China, she was a local, but they said she was from China.

I: No, I think no matter in which country, what race, religion just belong to ordinary people, people who has power or privilege in politics are so-so on religion.

I: It happens in china, so does in Malaysia. This is human being’s natural, religion is about after dying, but people prefer the present lives.

Wan: No scholarship in mainland China, and no part time job is allowed.

I: It is said that Malaysia Government did the investigation that the education system in mainland China and Russia are similar, they are too strict, but the students have more freedom in Taiwan and Hong Kong, that is why many people prefer to study in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The participants are from different ages, different education backgrounds, diferent religious backgrouds, so they have different living experience, different woking experience, different knowledge and differnt intereasting, they told something that they knew to others, while others did not know.

4.2.2 Sharing the knowledge and interesting

Dong: A few days ago, I heard a little boy from China was killed here, but the police couldn’t find the murder. His father was worried a lot, and has come here for four times.

Wan: Yes, it was homicide, it was not commit suicide. But, the victim was there, the body was there, only no murder. So our report evaded serious matter and took up trifles.

Wan: I knew from internet that Zhang xueyou will hold a music concert in Malaysia, I like him very much.

Dong: Me too, his voice is really unique, I didn’t watch his music concert in Shenyang (her hometown). He held just after I had come to Malaysia. I collected all his songs. He is my forever favorite. I am his faith fan.

I: One of my friends is Zhao wei’s fan, Zhao wei’s pictures are in her study room, kitchen, and headphone. She also changes the pictures.

Ma: Zhao wei is Ok, I hate Zhang ziyi.

Li: Me too, I hate Zhang ziyi, I like Gong li. Since Zhang ziyi became famous, I like Gong li.

All of the participants are Chinese, five are from mainland China, and two are local, they speak the same language, Mandarin Chinese, so their interestings are somehow the same. They joined in the conversation and shared their knowledge and interesting.

Exchanging their experience

Dong: En…my friend….one of my friends said he will open a computer shop to me at the gate of a shopping center.

Dong: It is behind the shopping mall, four computer shops there, he has the braches in China, he wants to cooperate with me, the capital is from him, I do service and selling.

Wan: It is hard to be a reporter, we rest one day in one week. If we don’t have readers for our newspapers and magazines, we must be in trouble, and our works should be ratified by some leaders. Such as the case of the Chinese lady from China (the policemen forced her to take off the clothes), some reporter were punished, which give us a warning.

Among this group of people, some are working now (full time or part time), some worked before, some did not work at all, and each job has its own characteristic. So they introduced their experience and job features.

Indicating curent concerns

Zhao: When will you give me the past year exam papers?

Chun: I am going to give you on Thursday,

Zhao: On Thursday? I will start memorizing.

Chun: Why do you memorize them? They are useless.

Zhao: I want to have a look.

Chun: I will copy one set to you. I will bring them to office to copy.

Zhao: How about next Monday? In the evening?

Chun: Ok, maybe I will go to main library to do my assignments, I will give you.

Zhao: Arabian are very stupid, my group members are Arabian, our project got a very low mark.

I: Yes? Why don’t you change?

Dong: You guys should marry the local high class; otherwise you don’t have happy life. Generally speaking, Chinese marry Malay is not only because of love, but the good policy from government as well. If you marry high class, you will have more chances.

Six of participants were Master students, and the exam was coming, so they worried a lot about the exams. Especially Zhaolei, who is in his first semester, asked something about the exam that interrupted conversation vey often.

Section 5: Conclusion and Implications

This study primarily concentrates on issues of turn taking and topic shifting in the casual conversation. It demonstrates that conversations are organized by turn taking when more than one persons talk at once in conversation, and the verbal turns are token by shifting the topics in conversation. 

The turn taking distributes turns among conversations, especially face-to-face communication, usually individuals have a unique pattern of turn taking that identifies them in the same way a fingerprint does. The current speakers always take their turns by self-selection and select the next speaker by looking at that person, or by asking that person a question. On the contrary, the second speakers acquire their turns by the current speakers indicating the end of a turn or inviting the hearer to take turn. They may address, or talk face to face with the speakers who are going to receive the turn. If the current speaker does not select next speaker, the second speakers self-select and seize the turns to show their agreement, their knowledge, and to indicate their curiosity. Moreover, the second speakers claim their turn after the current speaker speak to the group, not to him/herself. Besides, the current speakers will continue speaking if no other participant selects him or herself as the next speaker.

In the conversation, topic shifting marks the meta-knowledge of speakers or hearers shared knowledge. The topics selected are interested for all participants, whose experiences also develop interest. Every participant contributed their special knowledge, ideas, information and interest at hand. They shift the topics with different motivations, sometimes once in a turn, sometimes more that once within a turn. They are all Chinese, even they are from two countries, they speak Mandarin Chinese, and they are all singles, they have many interests in common. They shared their knowledge and interests. And also among this group, people are from different ages, different education backgrounds, and diferent religious backgrouds, some are working now (full time or part time), some worked before, some did not work at all, so they have different living experience, different woking experience, different knowledge. So they indicated their current concerns, exchanged their experience and job features. Last but not least, when the pause came, and nothing was important, they just picked up the topic at hand to continue the conversation, such as weight losing or money making.

The findings that truly reflect the data and the motivations of the participants’, which is a more nature phenomena and the aims of the investigation. They not only provided an understanding of the conversation, but also demonstrated the degree to which the topics were interrelated. They gives some indication of the coherence of the conversation, which can be linked to other data sources in the study, and can provide a pathway from process to outcomes and outputs in the future studies. The finding of this study also would be valuable in giving a clear understanding on the characteristics of the turn taking and topic shiting, especially the topic continuing shift seemed to be a factor in the motivations to improve communication, and inspiring other researchers to make further research on this field

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