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Can seeing a face change the way we speak?

Can seeing a face change the way we speak? UC researcher asks

February 6, 2013

A University of Canterbury (UC) speech research project has found people speak differently when they talk to different people.

UC student Nicole Mehrtens helped Dr Kauyumari Sanchez research a phenomenon known as the chameleon effect. This is the tendency people have to subtly imitate the person with whom they are interacting. It is something that people all do at different times, whether they realise it or not, she said.

``For example, you may have noticed that while having dinner with someone you tend to drink at the same time and mirror the other person’s body movements such as tapping your foot.

``Why do we do this? Well, imitation has been found to establish rapport between people. We like people who are similar to us, whether it is through acting or even talking similarly. We might not consciously decide to copy another person so they like us, but it does happen.

``The outcomes of this research will help people who are blind or deaf, and for people learning a second language,’’ Mehrtens said.

She will present this research, supervised by Dr Sanchez, at a public summer scholarship event on campus on February 8.

The findings will help UC’s New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour work toward establishing a vocal fingerprint which will be particularly useful for speech recognition systems, and possibly in criminal justice settings.

``We looked at how people articulate their words to sound similar but with a novel twist.

Although we typically think of speech as sounds, more and more research is finding that it also includes visual components, such as how the face moves to articulate words.

``We wanted to see if people would be equally influenced in how they articulate their words when presented with auditory versus visual speech, from hearing or seeing such as lip-reading. If it is the case that people automatically imitate the face or voice of a talker, then it would suggest that auditory and visual speech might carry the same information.

``We hope, in future, to see if speech information carries social implications. The wider reason that we are interested is based on dialect formation. Dialect formation starts from somewhere.

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