Authors: Yanjun Xue
Paralinguistic features (or “nonverbal cues” in some literature) are increasingly prevalent in text-based computer-mediated communication (CMC). These features can be used to convey both lexical and emotional meanings. Research into their roles and functions in this field, including in additional language learning is increasing gradually. Understanding the role of such features is important since misinterpreting either lexical or emotional meanings could substantially influence the process of communication and hence the opportunities for language learning experiences. This paper documents some of the challenges in exploring the use of such paralinguistic features in international, WeChat-based text chats between Australian learners of Chinese and Chinese mentors based in the PRC. Two key paralinguistic features are emoticons and emoji. Emoticons can be rendered consistently both in participants’ devices and in researchers’ devices. Emoji use two kinds of codes, either the industry-standardised Unicode or codes that are specific to certain operating systems or applications such as the QQ codes used in WeChat. Unlike emoticons, emoji present challenges for researchers since their renderings can vary significantly in response to multiple, interacting influences, even if they are encoded with the same Unicode. Differences between the image encoded and the image viewed may cause miscommunication resulting from different interpretations of their semantics and sentiment (Miller et al.). There are additional possibilities of miscommunication in a longitudinal study as there may be updates of operating systems and specific applications over time. In this paper, I address the complex issues that emerged in my PhD research project when participants used their own devices and interacted over an extended period. An additional complexity arises when using researchers’ devices to collect participants’ chat logs containing emoji resulting in substantial methodological challenges in interpreting the roles of emoji in participants’ relationship building. In addition to accounting for platform and application differences between participants, researchers must make sure that what they can see with their devices (and software versions) is the same as what their participants saw with their devices and software versions. This paper describes these methodological challenges and explains how I resolved these challenges in my PhD research project.
Keywords: computer-mediated communication, paralinguistic features, emoji, emoticon, methodological challenges