Monday 23 December 2013

Season's Greetings to all our readers.

We will resume our weekly summaries on January 6 2014. We look forward to your continued interest in 2014.

Best wishes from the Linguistics Research Digest 

Monday 16 December 2013

Getting on together in conversation

we communicate through gestures too!
When we talk, the nods, gestures, posture and body movements that we make convey important messages to our conversational partners. They can help in understanding meaning and can show whose turn it is to speak next. They can also display how we feel about the person we’re talking to.

Mary Lavelle, Patrick Healey and Rosemarie McCabe confirm that nodding and hand gestures affect the amount of interpersonal rapport that people experience when they are talking to each other. They set up an experiment where 40 groups of three people were asked to do the ‘balloon task’. This task is a good way of getting people to talk to each other: they are asked to imagine that a hot air balloon is losing height and about to crash. The only way for anyone to survive is for one of the three passengers to jump to a certain death. The three passengers are a cancer scientist, a pregnant primary school teacher and her husband, who is also the pilot. The task of the group is to decide which of the three should make the jump. The conversations in the groups lasted about five and a half minutes, and each participant then rated on a ten point scale the level of rapport they had felt with their conversational partners.

They were not told, however, that in half of the groups one of the participants was suffering from schizophrenia, a condition that apart from its other symptoms often means patients use less non-verbal communication than expected.

During the conversations the patients with schizophrenia spoke less than the healthy participants, and they used fewer gestures when speaking and fewer nods when listening. The more severe their schizophrenic symptoms, the less often they nodded when listening, thus giving fewer indicators of understanding to their partners. Interestingly, the conversational partners compensated by gesturing more when they were speaking themselves, perhaps because they assumed the patients had not been paying attention or were not understanding well. This shows, then, how we adapt our nonverbal cues to the behavior of others during the flow of conversation.

The experiment also showed that gestures in themselves are not enough to achieve interpersonal understanding. Patients with more severe symptoms gestured more when speaking but this (together with more negative symptoms and poorer social cognition) resulted in their partners giving poorer ratings for interpersonal rapport. The researchers point out that gestures were measured mechanically, in terms of speed, so the total number may have included movements that were not helpful to communication (scratching, for example, or displacement behavior). They also note that successful communication relies on gestures that are relevant to communication being well coordinated with speech: if patients are not able to harmonize their verbal and nonverbal features, this would impact on others’ experience of rapport with them.

This exploratory study shows how people’s nonverbal behavior and experience of interpersonal rapport changes in response to the behavior of a schizophrenic patient even when they are unaware of their diagnosis. It has implications therefore for therapy designed to combat the social isolation that tends to accompany this illness. More generally, it shows how important nonverbal communication is for establishing rapport between conversational partners, and how we design the nonverbal cues we use in the flow of conversation in response to those used by others.


Lavelle, Mary, Healey, Patrick G.T., and McCabe, Rosemarie (2013). Is nonverbal communication disrupted in interactions involving patients with schizophrenia? Schizophrenia Bulletin 39 (5): 1150-1158

doi 10.0193/schbul/sbs091

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday 9 December 2013

Putting Gender in Writing

A lot of sociolinguistic work has focussed on how males and females use linguistic features in spoken language.  This research has led to certain features being associated more with male use, such as I references (e.g. I think….) and quantity references (e.g. it was 24 metres), while references to emotion (e.g. a happy occasion) and verbs expressing uncertainty (e.g. it seems to be…) are linked to female use.

But are these gender-associated language features also used in written language?  Anthony Mulac, Howard Giles, James J. Bradac and Nicholas A. Palomares enlisted the help of 127 19-21 year old students and asked them to produce a written description of 5 different photographic images depicting nature scenes (such as a mountain reflected in a lake).  The experiment had five stages.  Participants had to:

  • ·       write a description of the first image (this was the control task - as no other instruction was given, the researchers assumed that this was a natural reflection of the participants’ language use)

  • ·       write a description as if they were:

a.     a man describing it to a man
b.     aman describing it to a woman
c.     a woman describing it to a man
d.     a woman describing it to a woman

By imposing these conditions, Mulac and his colleagues could test whether the writers’ language altered according to the gender of the perceived recipient of the description or the gender persona that they were told to adopt.

Each description from the participants was anonymously coded for gender-specific language features (such as those mentioned above) and the control description was used as a base for comparing their language use in the other four scenarios. 

The results showed gender differentiation in the the control task. In the natural descriptions (with no instruction from the researchers), males and females used more of the features associated with their gender.  The researchers note that this is evidence of gender-linked language at an unconscious level.
 In addition, when the participants were asked to write as either a male or female, there was an increase in their use of appropriate gender features.  For example, males writing under the guise of a female adopted more ‘female’ features, such as emotional references, while females writing under a male guise increased the use of ‘male’ features like quantity references.  This, the researchers suggest, means that, in addition to unconscious knowledge of gender-linked language, there are some features of language that are gender-linked stereotypes.  These stereotyped features can be accessed and manipulated by people when they want to present different gender affiliations. 

In contrast, the results did not show any manipulation of gender features according to the perceived audience (for example, males didn’t alter their language use according to whether they were writing to a female or male).  Also, the results didn’t show any increase in gender features when writing to someone of the same gender.  Previous research had suggested that, for example, a male conversing with another male may increase his use of ‘male language features’ in order to promote his sense of maleness.  Instead, Mulac, Giles, Bradac and Palomares suggest that, as respondents used a combination of features when writing to other people, they were styling their speech so that it did not heavily emphasise one gender or another.  They were, in a sense androgynous.

In conclusion, therefore, the researchers propose that individuals have gender schemata and stereotypes.  The former generate gendered language features in an unconscious sense (hence the control descriptions show many gender-associated features).  The latter allows us to consciously draw on our knowledge of gendered language when we are prompted to do so.  It is interesting that both the schemata and the stereotypes produce similar linguistic features, as the features used by participants (be it consciously or unconsciously) were consistent across the tasks.


Mulac, Anthony, Giles, Howard, Bradac, James J. and Palomares, Nicholas A. (2013) The gender-linked language effect: an empirical test of a general process model. Language Sciences 38: 22-31

doi: 10.1016/j.langsci.2012.12.004

This summary was written by Jenny Amos