Listening to the sound of silence: disfluent silent pauses in speech have consequences for listeners

Lucy J. Macgregor, Martin Corley, David I Donaldson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Silent pauses are a common form of disfluency in speech yet little attention has been paid to them in the psycholinguistic literature. The present paper investigates the consequences of such silences for listeners, using an Event-Related Potential (ERP) paradigm. Participants heard utterances ending in predictable or unpredictable words, some of which included a disfluent silence before the target. In common with previous findings using er disfluencies, the N400 difference between predictable and unpredictable words was attenuated for the utterances that included silent pauses, suggesting a reduction in the relative processing benefit for predictable words. An earlier relative negativity, topographically distinct from the N400 effect and identifiable as a Phonological Mismatch Negativity (PMN), was found for fluent utterances only. This suggests that only in the fluent condition did participants perceive the phonology of unpredictable words to mismatch with their expectations. By contrast, for disfluent utterances only, unpredictable words gave rise to a late left frontal positivity, an effect previously observed following ers and disfluent repetitions. We suggest that this effect reflects the engagement of working memory processes that occurs when fluent speech is resumed. Using a surprise recognition memory test, we also show that listeners were more likely to recognise words which had been encountered after silent pauses, demonstrating that silence affects not only the process of language comprehension but also its eventual outcome. We argue that, from a listener's perspective, one critical feature of disfluency is the temporal delay which it adds to the speech signal.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3982-3992
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2010

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Language comprehension; Disfluency; ERPs; Recognition memory; N400; PMN; LPC


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