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Showing the importance of prosody for communication

Duane Watson has a research focus on what he believes is one of the most important – and understudied – aspects of communication: prosody, or aspects of speech such as intonation and pauses that can convey as much meaning as the words they accompany.

Published on Feb. 1, 2012

Everything from mixed-up orders to academic disagreements to workplace arguments – based solely on misunderstanding intent in an email – have become so common that the topic has given rise to a new area of research. Duane Watson isn’t one of those researchers but the phenomenon does buttress his work involving what he believes is one of the most important, and understudied, aspects of communication: prosody, or aspects of speech such as intonation and pauses that can convey as much meaning as the words they accompany.

Watson believes that how we say words and sentences is just as important to communication as what we say. And the Beckman Institute researcher is building a research resume that provides an empirical foundation for his perspective.

“I study not what people say, but how they say it,” Watson said. “I try to figure out, or build psychological models of how people use prosody to communicate. What makes a person emphasize a given word over another, figuring out where people pause in sentences, where they make disfluencies, say things like “uhh” and “umm”. We also try to figure out how these things help listeners better understand language.”

As an example of the importance of prosody, Watson points to that common form of 21st Century communication in which prosody is removed: the email. On his laboratory website, Watson writes that successful communication by email or text is possible, but more challenging without prosody: “A brief response in an email might be interpreted as curtness rather than the result of the author being in a hurry. An ironic response in a text message might sound like biting sarcasm without the accompanying prosodic information.”

Watson said he used those examples because of his own email interactions with undergraduates over the years.

“I might be in a hurry to get somewhere and I see an email from a student and I write something quickly just to answer their question,” Watson said. “Then I had one student say ‘I didn’t mean to bug you’…’ and I was like oh no, I didn’t mean to be terse, or what have you, I was in a hurry.’

“Without these cues within speech that help us detect what a person’s intention is, it is difficult to figure out what a person is really saying in an email. That’s why we have emoticons, to sort of take the edge off.”

I study not what people say, but how they say it. I try to figure out, or build psychological models of how people use prosody to communicate.
– Duane Watson

Watson is a member of Beckman’s Cognitive Science research group and Associate Professor in the departments of Psychology and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. He uses eye-tracking and lab experiments in research involving language production and communication, with a focus on the topic of prosody.

Prosody, Watson writes in his research mission statement, includes the “stress, pitch, rhythm, and intonation of language” and that despite its importance, “we know very little about the structure of prosody, the cognitive processes that are deployed in constructing it, or how it is interpreted. Understanding prosody is critical for building speech systems, designing interventions for individuals with communication disorders, and in developing pedagogical strategies for people learning English as a second language.”

Watson also believes that a psychological theory of prosody could answer a basic question about communication as to why certain ways of speaking are better for listeners. In addition, he thinks understanding how prosody organizes linguistic information for the listener can provide insight into understanding the underlying architecture of the language system.

Watson has several ongoing research lines involving topics such as prosody and syntactic structure, speech disfluencies, and memory. Graduate students who are in the Communications and Language Lab (CaLL) Watson directs focus on each of these lines. The work on disfluency is an area where they have made some interesting, and surprising, discoveries.

“One finding that we’ve had is that if you’re listening to a story or a speech, people remember the content better if the person says ‘uh’ and ‘um’ in it than if the story is completely fluent,” Watson said. “This is counter-intuitive, because if you go to a speech coach, they say don’t say uh and um.”

The experiment required participants to listen to a story that was either completely fluent, or had ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ digitally inserted in different places, or had coughs inserted to control for the timing, so it wasn’t just that listeners had more time to respond to a story that included disfluencies. They reported their work in a paper titled The Disfluent Discourse Effects of Filled Pauses on Recall in the Journal of Memory and Language.

“The task was for them to listen to it and then tell the story back,” Watson said. “We found that they’re better at it if uh and um is actually there. So we think that maybe those disfluencies are increasing the person’s attention.

“This is speculation, but if the speaker doesn’t know what they’re saying very well, you pay attention more because you think you need to work harder to get it. One thing that disfluencies do is buy speakers more time. They are a signal to the person listening that I need more time.”

Another topic Watson is focusing on involves processes that go into emphasizing one word over another.

“I think traditionally people always thought that the reason you emphasize a word is to signal something to your listener about the importance of that word, or you’re contrasting it,” Watson said. “Our recent research suggests that you are doing that, but another reason to do it is to actually help you get the word out; that the reason you are producing it with more prominence is because it’s actually harder to say and by saying it with more prominence, it facilitates the speech for yourself. So there’s an aspect for listeners and an aspect for speakers.”

Watson began studying prosody and some of his other current topics while earning a Ph.D. at MIT. His interest in psychology originated during his undergraduate days at Princeton when he took courses in clinical psychology, but soon found the cognitive processes underlying behavior more compelling. At MIT, he investigated prosody based on the recommendation of his advisor.

“It’s one of these things where I didn’t even know what prosody was when I went to graduate school,” Watson said. “It grabbed me because not much work had been done and part of the reason is because until recently, it has been really hard to study. It’s pretty recent that we had the technology to record people’s speech accurately – we use a lot of eye-tracking tasks in my lab – to measure how people are interpreting speech as they hear it. It was kind of exciting to jump into something people haven’t done much on from a psychological standpoint.”

Watson did a postdoctoral research stint at the University of Rochester, where he met his wife and Beckman and Psychology faculty colleague Sarah Brown-Schmidt. He has been at Illinois for seven years and can be described as a psycholinguist, although Watson doesn’t use that term when people ask what he does.

“If I tell people that they don’t know what it means so I tell them I’m a psychologist who studies language,” he said.

Students who join the Communication and Language Lab are chosen for their passion for the subject.

“I think one of the things that I like is a student who is excited about what they are looking for,” Watson said. “I know that sounds kind of obvious but this kind of work is hard enough that if you’re not interested in it, if you are not geared up and psyched for it, you should find another line of work. I find that students who do have that excitement are the most successful and get the most done, frankly.”

That applies to the lab director and his approach to teaching and research.

“Dick Feynman, the Noble prize winning physicist, got offered a job at Princeton where he wouldn’t have to teach at all and he turned it down, because he felt that teaching was such an important part of his research,” Watson said. “I totally agree with that. I find that, both at the undergrad and the grad level, forcing myself to talk about an area that interests me to someone who doesn’t understand it, makes me think about it in new ways and I can take that back to my own research.”

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