It Seems Hard to Speak and Listen in a Masked World -Researchers

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A team of researchers from University of California, Davis, have said 14 months into COVID-19 living, people are adapting to speaking from behind, and understanding others who are wearing a cloth face mask.

They added that it has become difficult for people who wear face masks to speak and also to be listened to. However, people are seeming to adapt.

In a bid to advance understanding, the researchers investigated how well speech is understood from those speaking while wearing a cloth mask. Due to social distancing measures, speakers for the study consisted of individuals from the same household, who recorded sentences while face-masked and non-face-masked.

They tested how well a separate group of listeners, 63 individuals at UC Davis, could understand these productions. They discovered that masked speech was a bit difficult to understand.

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Michelle Cohn, the study’s lead author said when the speakers were instructed to ‘speak clearly’ while wearing a face-mask, their speech became better understood by listeners.

She added that results from the current study revealed that wearing a fabric face mask does not uniformly affect speech intelligibility across styles, noting that speakers are dynamically assessing listener difficulty and adapting their ‘clear’ speech accordingly.

Another study published in the journal Cognition shows that intelligibility of face-masked speech depends on speaking style: Comparing casual, clear, and emotional speech.

Speakers, who were members of the same household, produced sentences in three speech styles (casual, clear, positive-emotional) while in both masked and unmasked conditions. Audio-recording equipment was mailed to their home.

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In the experiment, researchers added background noise to a recording of a variety of sentences being spoken. The ambient noise made it more difficult to understand speakers, mimicking, for example, the circumstances at crowded supermarkets or in public, Cohn said.

These recordings were played to listeners who completed the experiment online. (Listeners were all native speakers of American English recruited from a UC Davis psychology pool.) Their task was to listen carefully to each sentence, and type the last word that they heard.

For example, after hearing the sentence: “Miss Brown might consider the coast,” the participant would type “coast” if they heard the word correctly, or perhaps “toast” if they heard it incorrectly. For “casual” and “smiled” speech, listeners were less able to identify words when the speakers were wearing a fabric face mask, compared to when they were not wearing one, researchers found.

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The results showing that most people could, however, adapt their speaking and listening skills can be used to produce practical public recommendations for face-masked speech adaptations in everyday situations. By instructing talkers to “speak clearly” the disadvantages of face-masked speech in noisy conditions can be overcome, researchers said.

Cohn said the results have highlighted the adaptive nature of human speech and helped to understand why it is a successful communication tool, even when situations where listening is hard.

 

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