Running Repairs: Coordinating Meaning in Dialogue

People give feedback in conversation: both positive signals of understanding, such as nods, and negative signals of misunderstanding, such as frowns. How do signals of understanding and misunderstanding affect the coordination of language use in conversation? Using a chat tool and a maze-based reference task, we test two experimental manipulations that selectively interfere with feedback in live conversation: (a) Attenuation that replaces positive signals of understanding such as right or okay with weaker, more provisional signals such as errr or umm and (2) Amplification that replaces relatively specific signals of misunderstanding from clarification requests such as on the left? with generic signals of trouble such as huh? or eh?. The results show that Amplification promotes rapid convergence on more systematic, abstract ways of describing maze locations while Attenuation has no significant effect. We interpret this as evidence that running repairsthe processes of dealing with misunderstandings on the flyare key drivers of semantic coordination in dialogue. This suggests a new direction for experimental work on conversation and a productive way to connect the empirical accounts of Conversation Analysis with the representational and processing concerns of Formal Semantics and Psycholinguistics. Healey etal. use experiments with chat dialogues to test the hypothesis that language co-ordination is driven by running repairs'. They replace signals of understanding such as okay with weaker, spoof' signals like ummm, and replace specific requests for clarification like on the left? with signals that suggest a higher degree of misunderstanding like what?. The latter manipulation causes participants to switch rapidly to more abstract forms of referring expression.
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Topics in Cognitive Science
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