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Do we talk like Parrots?

Apr

08

Language alignment’ is the idea that in conversations, we copy much of what we say from each other, rather than working out what we say from scratch. Kane Steggles, a 6th former from the Angmering School Sixth Form, delved further during a summer placement in the ChaTLab, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.  Kane explains…

Dialogue is very important for humans as every day we navigate through conversation with remarkable ease, despite the many complex mental processes that are posed by dialogue, with half-finished sentences and thinking on the spot. These complexities endanger the success of a conversation yet humans seem to succeed. How is this achieved? A paper released in 2004 by Simon Garrod and Martin Pickering suggested that these problems are mitigated by a process known as Language Alignment which is the tendency for conversational partners to imitate each other’s  use of words, tone of voice and syntax as they converse.

Thanks to the funding of a Nuffield Research Placement  I was able to study the phenomenon of Language Alignment in more depth at the University of Sussex. In summer 2013 I studied the differences between the Language Alignment abilities of adults and children under the supervision of Dr. Nicola Yuill, who manages the lab and Zoe Hopkins from the ChaTLab who is doing her doctoral research into understanding alignment in autism. We looked at syntactic alignment -  the tendency for people to copy the language structures used by an experimenter during a conversation, and two different pairs of syntactic structures. The procedure used in this type of study involves the experimenter describing a picture with one of two different structures. We then see if the participant being tested uses the same or a different structure to describe  their own different  picture. If they do, then they are judged to have aligned their syntax. The pictures are deliberately rather unusual! So if I say ‘A prince is squashed by an elephant’, you might copy my syntax to describe your picture and say ‘The nurse is kicked by the cow’, rather than using the more common ‘The cow kicked the nurse’.  We predicted that children would align more than adults because children seem to be natural imitators and learn much of their language through copying what they hear.

We did not find any overall difference in how much adults and children copied structures. However, children did copy one of the structures more than adults  -  the ‘double object’ structure, such as  ‘A tiger gives a doctor a ball’. One possibility is that children have a less mature understanding of this structure, and may have been more ready to imitate it even if they did not fully grasp it, so gaining further understanding of this structure. But we can be assured that they understood more than a pet parrot does when it tells us what a Pretty Polly it is.

My research project won a place in the Finals of the National Science and Engineering competition where I presented my findings to judges and enthusiasts at the Big Bang Fair, held at the NEC in Birmingham on 13th-14th of March. It was extremely humbling to be in the presence of such fantastic projects including the winning project by Aneeta and Ameeta Kumar for their brilliant use of biological research into a seemingly promising way of isolating cancer treatment.

Congratulations to the winners of the National Science and Engineering competition and many thanks to the Nuffield Foundation, the University of Sussex and the ChaTLab for giving me the opportunity to embark upon this project. It was as challenging as it was fascinating but most importantly it has only further validated my wish to study psychology further.