Public Release: 

Pauses can make or break a conversation

University of Gothenburg

Long pauses can make speech difficult to understand, but short pauses can be highly beneficial. This is shown in a new doctoral thesis in linguistics from the University of Gothenburg.

When we speak we don't. Pause. After. Each. Word. Instead we pause between longer utterances - sometimes to breathe, sometimes to think and sometimes to see if somebody else wants to say something. We usually don't even notice the pauses, but if a pause feels a bit too long we start wondering what is going on.

Kristina Lundholm Fors has explored what decides whether the duration of a pause in speech is perceived as normal or as uncomfortably long. She finds that we tend to adapt our pauses to our conversation partner - when the other person uses longer pauses we follow along and do the same thing, and vice versa.

'This way we learn what a normal pause is for the person we are talking to, in that particular conversation,' says Lundholm Fors.

Lundholm Fors used eye tracking to study the processing of sentences with long pauses, sentences containing pauses of typical duration and sentences without pauses. Her results show that sentences with unusually long pauses tend to be more difficult to process. The long pauses in her study were four seconds long.

'Four seconds doesn't sound like a long time, but when you are talking to somebody it can feel like an eternity. A typical pause in speech lasts only about a quarter to half a second.'

So, long pauses can affect communication negatively, but they can also have a positive effect if they are not too long. After the eye tracking study, the test subjects were asked to indicate which sentences they had heard during the experiment. The sentences that contained a half second pause turned out to be significantly easier to understand than sentences that lacked pauses and sentences that contained an unusually long pause.

Pauses are a natural part of speech, and learning more about them can help us understand how the participants in a conversation take turns talking. Lundholm Fors' research shows that pauses in speech are not distributed randomly; instead, the use of them follows a distinct pattern.

'This means that when we talk to other people, we pretty much know when there's going to be a pause, and this is information we can use as we prepare to say something,' she says.

The results of Lundholm Fors' doctoral thesis can contribute to better modelling of pauses in speech - models that in turn can be used in the development of systems for communication between humans and computers.

'Since the pauses are important for the processing of information, more natural use of pauses in computerised speech can contribute to improved understanding. The pausation models can also be useful in the evaluation of individuals with various disabilities affecting the ability to speak and communicate,' she says.


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