• Conversation;
  • context;
  • noise;
  • acoustic ecology;
  • listening;
  • collaborative learning

Despite the importance of context in studies of language use, sociolinguists have ignored the impact of noise on conversational interaction. This inattention is of particular concern in classrooms where language is a learning tool. Our research on interaction in noisy settings took place in English language elementary school classrooms with students in grades 3, 5, and 7, whose first language was English. Students were observed during regular classroom activities. Employing a novel method, in which students wore ear-level microphones, we obtained stereophonic recordings of the noise and conversation that reached each listener's ears. A dosimeter measured the noise levels in each classroom. Analyses of students’ patterns of conversation suggest that noise levels impeded the intended development of complex conversational interaction and collaborative learning. This study also questions the place of acoustics in understanding context, and the significance of the hearer's perspective in sociolinguistic studies of conversational interactions.