One of the most amazing skills humans have within communication is not only that we are able to form such detail in the content of our speech, but also in what is not said.
“When we talk we take turns, where the “right” to speak flips back and forth between partners. This conversational pitter-patter is so familiar and seemingly unremarkable that we rarely remark on it. But consider the timing: On average, each turn lasts for around 2 seconds, and the typical gap between them is just 200 milliseconds—barely enough time to utter a syllable. That figure is nigh-universal. It exists across cultures, with only slight variations. It’s even there in sign-language conversations.”
Conversation analysts first began noticing the rapid-fire nature of turn taking in the 1970s, however they were not interested in quantifying those gaps and did not have the tools to do this at the time. Now studies have been done across a number of languages for speakers of Italian, Dutch, Danish, Japanese, Korean, Lao, ≠Akhoe Hai//om (from Namibia), Yélî-Dnye (from Papua New Guinea), and Tzeltal (a Mayan language from Mexico). Even though each language has vastly different grammar and cultural variations, the results indicate that there are more similarities than differences.
“The typical gap was 200 milliseconds long, rising to 470 for the Danish speakers and falling to just 7 for the Japanese. So, yes, there’s some variation, but it’s pretty minuscule, especially when compared to cultural stereotypes. There are plenty of anecdotal reports of minute-long pauses in Scandinavian chat, and virtually simultaneous speech among New York Jews and Antiguan villagers. But Stivers and her colleagues saw none of that.”
The miniscule length of these silences is amazing considering that it takes at least 600 milliseconds to retrieve a single word from memory after which we must prepare to say the word then say it. It takes 1500 milliseconds to prepare a short phrase, a typical conversation response length. This means that we start planning our responses during our conversational partner’s turn, developing and producing everything from grammatical cues to pitch changes. We must also continuously predict the remaining content of the sentence; paragraph and general idea surrounding the conversation and these tasks use mostly overlapping neural circuits.
“Levinson now wants to understand how our turn-taking system evolved. It certainly seems to predate language. Great apes like chimps take turns when gesturing to each other and other primates, including several monkeys and one species of lemur, take turns when calling. The researchers also want to understand how turn-taking develops throughout our lives. So far, studies have shown that even six-month-old infants respond to their parents very quickly, albeit with more overlaps. At nine months, when they start to grasp that they’re actually communicating with another mind, they slow down. After that, it takes a surprisingly long time to get back to adult speeds.
Stivers has found that even 8-year-olds, who have been speaking for many years, are still a few hundred milliseconds slower than adults. That’s a puzzle that I don’t have answer to, she says.