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Turn taking in conversation is universal

Do people take turns in natural conversation in the same basic way in all languages, or does the turn-taking system vary in each language? Many anthropologists have suggested the latter, but MPI-researchers have found empirical evidence for robust universals in human conversation. Their study appears in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Turn taking in conversation is universal

photo by Stephen Levinson

Jun 21, 2009

Avoid silence and overlap

In a study of ten languages from five continents drawn from traditional indigenous communities (for example, Papua New Guinea) and major world languages Tanya Stivers, Nick Enfield, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Federico Rossano, Jan Peter de Ruiter, Kyung-Eun Yoon, and Stephen Levinson found that turn-taking in conversation is guided by two main rules: avoid speaking at the same time and avoid silence between turns. The same factors explaining when silence occurs in turn taking are at work in all languages - cooperative responses are faster than uncooperative ones.

Basic rules in every language

'What we found was that in every language speakers follow these two basic rules', Stivers says. 'In each language most responses were very close to no gap and overlap. And silence seemed to mean the same thing across different cultures as well: people take longer to respond when they are failing to give a definite answer or when they are disconfirming something. They also take longer if their response is only talk, or if the questioner isn't looking at them. If the questioner is looking at them and if the recipient uses a head nod or shake, then the response is more likely to be earlier.'

Languages may be calibrated slightly differently, though it is all within 200 to 250 milliseconds - i.e., the time it takes to utter a syllable. The calibration is very subtle, Stivers concludes. 'Still, we know that tiny delays matter if you think about asking someone on a date and that moment of hesitation - you hear that! So a speaker of Danish avoids silence just as a speaker of Japanese avoids silence, but silence happens faster in Japanese than in Danish. Still, the important thing is what makes us human and how it is that we can communicate with each other even without a common language. Our study suggests that turn taking rules are part of a collection of rules or norms that guide our behaviour. So, it may not be universals of grammar that hold us together, but rather universals of social interaction.'

To the PNAS web site


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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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