Universal Principles in the Repair
of Communication Problems

The 12 languages included in the study (locations are approximate)

The 12 languages included in the study (locations are approximate)

Humans ask for clarification in conversation on average every 90 seconds and do so in the same way regardless of the language being spoken, new research suggests. “Without a system like this, our conversations would constantly be derailed,” says Mark Dingemanse, language scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and lead author on the study.


An international team of linguists, led by Dingemanse together with Nick Enfield (now at the University of Sydney), have scoured over 48 hours of conversation in 12 different languages spoken on 5 continents. They found that in each language, speakers share the same basic system for ‘fixing’ communication problems. Besides the simple phrase ‘Huh?’ this system includes two more sophisticated question formats, with different languages converging on the same three basic strategies and using them regularly, indeed, as often as once every 90 seconds.

This is surprising, because scientists long assumed that the structure of conversations could vary radically by culture and might be too chaotic to study scientifically. Enfield: “Universal properties of language are much sought-after in linguistics. We are finding them in a place where few have looked: in the structure of everyday conversations.”

In the study, published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, the team describes that people everywhere use this ‘repair’ system in an altruistic way,  preferring to use the forms that minimize the total amount of joint work in resolving the disruption (rather than, for instance, selfishly preferring easier forms, e.g., ‘Huh?’).  The researchers studied video recordings of everyday life in a diverse range of languages, including Russian, Mandarin Chinese and English but also Cha’palaa in Ecuador, Argentine Sign Language, and Siwu in Ghana.

The findings give insight into what is special about language in our species. Other species have complex communication, but none is known to halt proceedings and initiate repair. Why? Because only human language can communicate about itself, we humans excel at monitoring each others’ states of understanding, and we are masters of the kind of cooperation that mutual understanding requires.

The team suggest the findings could help computers to communicate in more ‘human’ ways, for instance when they don’t understand voice commands. They also have applications in language teaching and cross-cultural communication.

Dingemanse, Mark, Seán G. Roberts, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Paul Drew, Simeon Floyd, Rosa S. Gisladottir, Kobin H. Kendrick, Stephen C. Levinson, Elizabeth Manrique, Giovanni Rossi, and N. J. Enfield. 2015. “Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems.” PLOS ONE 10 (9): e0136100. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0136100.

Figures

Repair sequences consist of a repair initiator that points back to something said before (trouble source) and points forward to a next turn (repair solution).

In  a repair sequence, one person signals a problem, inviting the other to backup and clarify.

Thetime

Repair is frequent: On average, no five minutes go by in any language without it.

Key points

  • Our international team of linguists scoured over 48 hours of conversation in 12 different languages spoken on 5 continents. Wherever we looked, we found that speakers share the same basic system for fixing or ‘repairing’ problems in communication.
  • First, we found that, universally, people stop for clarification regularly, and indeed very often: on average, once every 90 seconds. Without a system for ‘repairing’ communication problems, our conversations would be constantly derailed.
  • Second, we found that, universally, people use the same underlying basic ‘repair’ system, thus transcending differences between languages. Examples of the three basic options are (1) ‘Huh?’ (which takes the most work to fix, often requiring a full repetition or more), (2) ‘Who?’, and (3) ‘Jane?’ (taking the least work to handle, e.g., with a simple ‘yes’).
  • Third, we found that, universally, people use the system in an altruistic way, preferring to use the forms that minimize the total amount of joint work in resolving the disruption (rather than, for instance, selfishly preferring easier forms, e.g., ‘Huh?’). This reveals the deeply social nature of language use.
  • The findings have implications for linguistics, where it has long been assumed that conversation is too chaotic or too culturally variable to study: they help open up a whole new field for cross-linguistic comparison. They also have applications in human-computer interaction, language learning and cross-cultural communication.

More information

To learn more, check out the paper, the supplementary materials, or the frequently asked questions. Want to save or cite our paper? Zotero will automatically detect the bibliographic metadata on this page. Or you can copy the following bibtex code:

@article{dingemanse_universal_2015,
title = {Universal {Principles} in the {Repair} of {Communication} {Problems}},
volume = {10},
doi = {10.1371/journal.pone.0136100},
number = {9},
journal = {PLOS ONE},
author = {Dingemanse, Mark and Roberts, Seán G. and Baranova, Julija and Blythe, Joe and Drew, Paul and Floyd, Simeon and Gisladottir, Rosa S. and Kendrick, Kobin H. and Levinson, Stephen C. and Manrique, Elizabeth and Rossi, Giovanni and Enfield, N. J.},
year = {2015},
pages = {e0136100}
}