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Face Masks Make Communicating in a Second Language Even Tougher

TUESDAY, Dec. 15, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- While face masks help control the spread of COVID-19, new research shows they're often a barrier to communication, particularly for folks whose first language is not English.

Researchers examined how the loss of visual information, such as facial cues, impacts both speech intelligibility and memory in both native and non-native speech.

"Visual and facial cues are very important for successful communication, especially in more challenging listening situations, such as in a noisy restaurant or classroom where multiple people talk at the same time," said researcher Sandie Keerstock, from the University of Missouri's Department of Psychological Sciences. "They provide supplementary information about speech sounds that may be missing in the auditory signal due to noise."

The researchers discussed these communication challenges at the Acoustical Society of America's virtual annual meeting, which was held last week. Such research is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Visual and facial clues to what's being said are particularly important when talking with a nonnative English speaker -- an especially common interaction in educational and medical settings.

Easy ways to overcome these challenges include what's called listener-oriented speech, or instructing people to speak loudly and clearly.

"These speaking style modifications can improve speech understanding as much or even more than the casual speech produced without a mask," Keerstock said in a meeting news release. "In that sense, speaking clearly offsets the negative effect of lack of visual cues when communicating with protective masks."

Another modification would be to provide crucial medical instructions in writing or to use transparent face masks or sign language when appropriate, said researcher Rajka Smiljanic, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. How effective these strategies are remains to be tested.

More information

The AARP offers suggestions when face masks interfere with communication.

SOURCE: Acoustical Society of America, news release, Dec. 10, 2020

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