cSCAN Rounds

The social psychology of linguistic alignment

In the course of a conversation, interlocutors tend to align their representations on many levels. Such alignment could be the result of fairly automatic priming, but there could also be a more strategic component to alignment such as a desire to help the listener or to establish rapport. If so, one expects alignment to be sensitive to social factors and perhaps even to affect social behaviour. Study 1 considered phonetic alignment between Dutch-English bilinguals and a native speaker of English. We manipulated social context: the bilinguals either interacted directly with the native speaker or were tricked into thinking they were listening to a recording of that speaker. Acoustical analyses showed that the bilinguals adapted their productions towards those of the confederate. Interestingly, the native speaker also adapted her productions towards the participant, even though this resulted in less native-like speech. Alignment did not depend on social context. Study 2 considered alignment at the syntactic level, with the twist that we now asked whether being imitated affects social behaviour. The experiment was set up so that the participant could imitate the sentence structure produced by a confederate in the previous sentence, but halfway the experiment we switched turn order. For half the participants the confederate always imitated the participant’s structure and for the other half she never did. Prosocial behaviour was then measured by asking participants to judge as many words as possible for a word rating megastudy. Contrary to our predictions, participants that were imitated were as helpful (i.e., filled in as many words) as participants that were not imitated. These studies show little evidence for social influences on alignment, consistent with the view of alignment as a rather automatic process.