March 01, 2010
A phone call between two friends or small talk on the street – this is the glue that holds human society together. Nick Enfield and Stephen Levinson, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, are interested in such everyday conversational situations. They want to know how language, culture and cognition interrelate.
Text: Katrin Blawat
At some point in the conversation with Nick Enfield, doubts start to creep in. It’s those little pauses that crop up before the Australian answers: was that just a moment of inattention, a second of deliberation? Or was there a message in that brief hesitation? Enfield, his fellow scientist Tanya Stivers and Director Stephen Levinson are looking into questions like these in their project on multimodal interaction. While everyday conversations may often be mundane and littered with errors, they are all the more interesting for psycholinguists.
“It’s easy to study how pure information is transmitted by looking at individual, unrelated sentences,” says Enfield. “But if we observe an informal chat within its overall context – including things like the exchange of glances, body language and movements – we can learn a lot about the relationship between the people conversing.”
Nick Enfield moved into his office at the Max Planck Institute on the outskirts of the Radboud University campus in Nijmegen nine years ago. The institute building is situated in the middle of a forest and looks so inconspicuous from the outside that no one would ever guess that this is a place where scientists study the essence of what makes us human. That is, after all, exactly what Enfield and his fellow scientists aim to achieve when they spend days and weeks patiently transcribing every “um” and “ah” of a recorded conversation.