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As Mask-Wearing Prevails, People Are Adapting to Understanding Speech
  • Robert Preidt
  • Posted February 8, 2021

As Mask-Wearing Prevails, People Are Adapting to Understanding Speech

As face masks have become the norm during the coronavirus pandemic, people have learned to communicate more clearly with their mouth covered, new research finds.

For the study, researchers asked participants to record sentences in three speech styles -- casual, clear and positive-emotional -- while they were masked and unmasked.

Background noise was added to a variety of the sentences being spoken, to mimic circumstances in public locations, such as supermarkets.

The recordings were then listened to online by 63 people who were not involved in the recordings.

Listeners were able to understand both masked speech and unmasked speech, according to the study published online recently in the journal Cognition.

"Strikingly, when speakers are instructed to 'speak clearly' while wearing a face mask, their speech is even better understood by listeners (compared to when the speakers are unmasked)," said study lead author Michelle Cohn, a postdoctoral fellow in linguistics at the University of California, Davis.

"Results from the current study revealed that wearing a fabric face mask does not uniformly affect speech intelligibility across styles," Cohn explained in a university news release. "Speakers are dynamically assessing listener difficulty and adapting their 'clear' speech accordingly."

For casual and positive-emotional (or "smiled") speech, however, listeners did have greater difficulty identifying words when the speaker was wearing a fabric face mask, compared to when they weren't wearing a mask, the researchers found.

Overall, the findings showed that most people can adapt their speaking and listening skills, and the results can be used to develop practical public recommendations for adapting to face-masked speech in everyday situations.

By asking talkers to speak clearly, the disadvantages of face-masked speech in noisy conditions can be overcome, the study authors concluded.

"Further, the results highlight the adaptive nature of human speech, and help us to understand why it is a successful communication tool, even in situations where listening is difficult," Cohn said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a guide to masks.

SOURCE: University of California, Davis, news release, Feb. 2, 2021

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