If you’ve ever caught yourself talking to someone and thought, “Well, I talk like them,” it could be a sign that you’re engaged in the conversation or the task at hand.
The same goes, as a new study shows, for solving puzzles in an immersive virtual game environment.
Over the years, researchers have found that when two people are discussing an enticing topic, the sounds of their speech are more likely to converge.
Without prompting, speakers may unwittingly start saying certain words like the other person. They can also modify the syntax of their sentences to better align with their interlocutor or change their pronunciation to match each other.
Many experiments have shown that sound imitation, or phonetic convergence, is a widespread feature of human speech.
But these shifts appear to be subtly different depending on the content and context of a conversation, including the gender, race, and conversational role of the speakers, as well as the purpose of the overall chat.
In 2018, experimenters found that when speakers are highly engaged in a task – in this case, dictating the colors of particular objects in the video game Minecraft to a partner – they emphasize words differently than just reading colors on a boring old computer screen.
This leaves open the possibility that the purpose of a task and the level of engagement of the participants can influence the sounds of a person’s speech.
The new study from US-based researchers adds to the literature by extending the video game experience of 2018.
The authors of the new research wanted to examine how speech production changes when a task is highly engaging and involves a conversational partner, as opposed to working together on a rather boring task.
The researchers divided 52 native English speakers into pairs. These pairs then had to complete a series of tasks together.
Speaker A had to help his partner, speaker B, who was sitting in an adjacent room, to navigate through a Minecraft stage using target words arranged in the virtual maze that both participants could see on their respective computer screens.
In the least engaging task, Talker A simply had to read words aloud on a screen to Talker B, who then selected the correct words on his screen.
The more engaging the task, the more convergence the researchers ultimately heard in the speech of speaker A and speaker B.
“As an example, imagine that Talker A is identified as having longer productions than his partner, Talker B, at the start of an interaction,” explain the authors.
“If speaker A shortened his productions during the experiment, then this would be taken as evidence that speaker A converged on speaker B. Similarly, if speaker B lengthened his productions during the experiment, this would be taken as evidence that speaker B converged on speaker A.”
The study suggests that a highly engaging conversation leads to more imitation. The speakers in the experiment were more likely to adapt their speech to their partner’s sounds when their attention was more invested in a game.
This suggests that phonetic convergence could be a way for humans to synergize with each other and reduce the risk of misunderstanding.
Like many before, the study is limited in that it focuses only on native English speakers and certain acoustic characteristics of speech. Its sample size was also too small to disentangle the more subtle acoustic changes that might occur during a conversation.
“It’s one thing to focus on the sound level, but other things happen on the language level, like using words that someone doesn’t normally use,” admits communication scientist Navin Viswanathan from Pennsylvania State University.
It should also be noted that in the current study, the high engagement task resulted in significantly more conversation between partners overall. This means that it’s possible that the speakers in the video game scenario simply had more opportunities to learn and imitate the nuances of their partner’s speech than in the simpler task.
Further studies are needed to explore how speech length may ultimately impact speech convergence, but these early results suggest that mimicry is not always mockery.
For better or for worse, the voices of others can easily rub off on us.
The study was published in Voice communications.