Are we analysing how people speak, or how they speak in labs?

speech_labIn the experimental linguistics community there’s an ongoing debate on the type of speech used for analyses. On the one hand are laboratory linguists working with tightly controlled, scripted speech. On the other we have linguists engaging with conversational interaction, or interested in more “natural” speech, who record spontaneous speech in informal settings. Many studies are, of course, somewhere in between these two extremes, but, at least in the phonetics community, there’s a tendency for researchers to prefer one of the two kinds of data (Xu 2010).

The thing is, however, that studies from different branches of experimental linguistics have shown that the settings in which the speech is recorded has a large influence on our results (Wagner et al. 2014). My own work, which I’m presenting at the UKLVC conference in York this week, shows how uptalk rises changes significantly in different speech styles (read more about uptalk here and here). So in, say, laboratory settings, are we recording how uptalk is used in actual, everyday speech, or in the kind of formal speech you use in research settings?

78788-425x282-Group_ConversationTo answer this question we first need to decide on what “actual, everyday speech” really is. Sociolinguists have known for a long time that everyday conversations are made up of a network of different speech styles, and that different dialects, ethnolects or even languages are used most people’s daily conversations (Labov 1972Bell 1984). This type of knowledge makes it harder for us to maintain a clear distinction between formal “lab styles” and informal “everyday styles”.

It also makes it difficult to make a clear choice as to which kind of speech style is preferable to experimental linguists. Both ends of the spectrum have their advantages – lab speech makes it easer to focus on specific phenomena and more fine-grained processes without the added influence of other variables such as faster speaking rates or accommodation to the speech of other people in the conversation. It’s also good for researchers working on very rare phenomena, as they’re able to ensure that their data sample will contain enough specimens to conduct their analyses. Spontaneous speech can shift the focus to broader trends in the data set, and lets the linguist observe exactly these other variables which take place in more informal speech styles.

It may be that what we experimentalists need is not so much a certain type of speech data, but rather an increased awareness of the kinds of speech styles we elicit and how they influence our results (see Wagner et al. 2014 for a thorough discussion of this topic). The key to understanding speech is, I think, to understand it in all its complexity. So my best suggestion for a solution to this debate is not to pick out one speech style over another, but rather to make sure we have lots of research on different speech styles, and on the way they affect our conversations, and our linguistic results.

Author: annajespersen

3rd year PhD student at the University of Cambridge

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