ASA Lay Language Papers
167th Acoustical Society of America Meeting

Our Unconscious Imitation Helps Us Understand Speech

James W. Dias –
Theresa C. Cook
Dominique C. Simmons
Josh J. Dorsi
Lawrence D. Rosenblum

University of California
Department of Psychology
900 University Avenue
Riverside, CA 92521

Popular Version of Paper 2pSC7
Presented Tuesday afternoon, May 6, 2014
167th ASA Meeting, Providence



We are always subtly imitating each other. We often inadvertently imitate each other’s body postures and facial expressions, as well as the speaking style of our conversational partners (Giles, Coupland, & Coupland, 1991). Although this type of unconscious, subtle imitation occurs readily, its full purpose is unclear. It is known that unconscious imitation can improve the quality of social interactions, such that people like each other more and behave more positively when subtly imitating each other (Wilson & Knoblich, 2005).

However, imitation may provide other benefits. It is known that intentional imitation of another’s action can help later perception of that action (Casile & Giese, 2006). For example, people trained to imitate an unfamiliar accent are better able to comprehend speech spoken in that accent (Adank, Hagoort, & Bekkering, 2010). It is also thought that the speech imitation performed by young children plays an important role in language learning and language comprehension during early development (Kuhl & Meltzoff, 1993).

The question remains of whether when adults inadvertently imitate speech, if it helps them understand the speech of those being imitated. To address this question, we asked a group of college students to perform a task known to elicit unconscious imitation of speech. In the speech shadowing task, subjects are presented with an auditory recording of a talker’s spoken word and are asked to simply say that word aloud quickly and clearly. Subjects are never told to “imitate” or even “repeat” the word, yet still their utterances show some imitation of the talker they hear (Goldinger, 1998).

It is also known that the degree to which a subject imitates can be affected by how quickly they are allowed to shadow after they hear the talker’s spoken word. If they are allowed to immediately shadow the word, they tend to imitate more than if they are asked to delay their shadowing response by up to four seconds (Goldinger, 1998). We used this fact to manipulate the amount subjects imitated and to test whether this amount influences subjects’ ability to understand the shadowed talker later in the experiment.

Different groups of subjects were asked to shadow a talker’s words. Some of these subjects were asked to shadow immediately after hearing each word while others were asked to delay their shadow responses by four seconds. After the shadowing task, all subjects were asked to identify words heard against a background of noise. Some of these words were spoken by the same talker they shadowed, with the remaining words spoken by a new talker. In addition, some of the words to be identified had been heard during the shadowing task and some had not.

In order to evaluate the degree of imitation for the different shadowing groups, we asked a group of judges, unaware of the purpose of the study, to rate the similarity of the subjects’ shadowed utterances to the utterances of the original talker. These ratings of imitation were then compared to the subjects’ ability to identify the talker’s speech against the noisy background. We found that the degree to which a subject imitated the talker was positively related to that subject’s ability to later identify the talker’s speech in noise. This turned out to be particularly true when subjects were asked to identify words they had previously shadowed.

An interesting, but unexpected, finding was the fact that the more a subject imitated the talker they had shadowed, the less accurate they were at later identifying words spoken by the other, non-shadowed talker. This finding was also more pronounced for the words that the subjects had previously shadowed.

The study suggests there is a relationship between unintentional imitation and the ability to identify speech spoken by imitated and non-imitated talkers. Our unconscious imitation of a talker seems to facilitate our perception of that talker. This finding may suggest that the mechanisms involved in speaking are closely tied to those involved in perceiving speech. More generally, the results may have broader implications for unintentional imitation of behaviors beyond  speech. Thus, our tendency to inadvertently imitate the body postures and facial expressions of other people may not only facilitate an improved quality of social interactions, but also an improved perception of other people’s actions and intentions.


Adank, P., Hagoort, P., & Bekkering, H. (2010). Imitation improves language comprehension. Psychological Science, 21(12), 1903-1909.

Casile, A., & Giese, M. A. (2006). Nonvisual motor training influences biological motion perception. Current Biology, 16, 69-74.

Giles, H., Coupland, N., & Coupland, J. (1991). Accommodation theory: Communcation, context, and consequence. In H. Giles, J. Coupland & N. Coupland (Eds.), Contexts of Accommodation (pp. 1-162). New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Goldinger, S. D. (1998). Echoes of echoes? An episodic theory of lexical access. Psychological Review, 105(2), 251-279.

Kuhl, P. K., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1993). Infant vocalizations in response to speech: Vocal imitation and developmental change. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 100(4), 2425-2438.

Wilson M., & Knoblich, G. (2005). The case for motor involvement in perceiving conspecifics. Psychological Bulletin, 131(3), 460-473.