"Can you make me a coffee?"

A hand is holding a coffee cup into which milk foam is being poured.

Length of speech pauses signals speakers' willingness to do others a favour

When we ask others to do us a favor, we often judge their helpfulness by the length of the pauses before their answers. Researchers led by Theresa Matzinger from the University of Vienna have now been able to show that these pauses are rated differently for native and non-native speakers – but not for all topics. The results of the study now appear in a special issue on the topic of speech pauses in the journal Languages.

A long pause before a response to a request is interpreted by many people as a sign of a lack of willingness to help. Researchers at the University of Vienna and the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń investigated whether this effect only occurs with responses from native speakers or also with those from non-native speakers.

The team led by Theresa Matzinger played about 100 short conversations to 100 Polish participants, in which the length of the pauses before the answers were either 0.2 or 1.2 seconds long. In addition, the responses were given either by native speakers of Polish or by Chinese learners of Polish who spoke Polish with a distinct accent. After listening to each conversation, study participants had to rate how willing they perceived the respondents to be to fulfill the request.

Longer pauses mean less willingness to do someone a favor - but only among native speakers

For native speakers, the expected effect was found: a longer pause before an answer was interpreted as a lower willingness to comply with the request. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, were seen as equally willing, regardless of how long the pause before their answers was. "Our results suggest that listeners include in their judgments of others' willingness to help how difficult speakers find it to express themselves. Thus, they do not see long pauses in non-native speakers as low willingness to help, but as a challenge for those speakers to formulate the answer in a foreign language. Therefore, they are more tolerant of longer pauses when they come from non-native speakers," explains Matzinger, who is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of English Studies at the University of Vienna.

Answers to requests are evaluated differently than knowledge questions

In a further step, the scientists tested how different pause lengths before answers to knowledge questions – such as the question about the first vegetable grown in space – are interpreted. Here, longer pauses were interpreted in both native speakers and non-native speakers as an indication of lower knowledge and lower confidence with regard to the correctness of the answer. According to Matzinger, one of the reasons might be that "Knowledge questions have less social relevance than requests. Knowledge questions can only be used to assess how competent someone is as a cooperation partner, but requests can be used to find out whether the person will actually cooperate."

In subsequent studies, the scientists want to clarify whether this effect is independent of the languages spoken and now want to conduct tests with speakers of other languages and accents.

Publication in Languages:

Matzinger, Theresa, Michael Pleyer, and Przemysław Żywiczyński. 2023. Pause Length and Differences in Cognitive State Attribution in Native and Non-Native Speakers. Languages 8(1), 26.

DOI: 10.3390/languages8010026

Scientific contact

Mag. PhD. Theresa Matzinger MSc. PhD.

Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
1090 - Wien, Spitalgasse 2-4, Hof 6

Further inquiry

Mag. Alexandra Frey

Media Relations Manager
Universität Wien
1010 - Wien, Universitätsring 1