Teaching the computer to make verbal slips

Bielefeld University begins research project with French partner

When people make a slip of the tongue in conversation, does it serve a purpose? This is the question being addressed by a new research project of Bielefeld University and the Paris Diderot University (France). During the three-year project, researchers will investigate the significance of laughter, slips of the tongue and exclamatory remarks for spoken language. The results will be used to teach dialogue systems to naturally communicate with humans.

Professor Dr. David Schlangen researches the significance that supposed speech errors such as laughter and slips of the tongue have for the spoken word. Photo: CITEC/Universität Bielefeld When people speak, they are bound to make slips of the tongue, laugh or make exclamatory remarks such as ‘Oh’ and ‘Really?’ and ‘Ah’. ‘Up until now, however, these elements of spoken language have been paid scant attention. We want to change this and integrate them into a theory of language use. Evidently, elements such as slips of the tongue or pauses play an important role in spoken language,’ says Professor Dr. David Schlangen. He is head of the research group ‘Applied Computational Linguistics’ of the Faculty of Linguistics and Literary Studies. The Research Group belongs to the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC).

Laughter can have several functions in language, explains Schlangen. ‘For example, it can reduce the acerbity of what is being said, or can signalise that what is said causes embarrassment to the speaker.’ Slips of the tongue can be of of use to the speaker: ‘For instance, when the speaker has to say something quickly and hasn’t had time to formulate it in his or her mind.’ The speaker will begin a sentence and will have to correct a word midway because it doesn’t fit with the next word he or she has just thought of. ‘Can you please give me the…that glass of water?’ The advantage is that the speaker wins time through a slip of the tongue to order his or her thoughts’, explains David Schlangen.

The project members want to find out which rules regulate slips of the tongue, interjections and laughter in spoken language. ‘After this we want to incorporate these rules into a computer system that is able to speak,’ says Schlangen. Dialogue systems such as these are already in use today in telephone hotlines to assist callers. ‘Misunderstandings are particularly commonplace in conversation with systems such as these. In the future, our system will laugh at itself when it has misheard something and then repeat the question, for instance,’ explains the linguist.

The project, which is titled The Disfluency, Exclamation and Laughter in Dialogue (DUEL), begins this month and runs until March 2017. The German Research Foundation (DFG) and the French National Research Agency (ANR) are funding the project, providing 280,000 Euros each.

Prof. Dr. David Schlangen, Bielefeld University
Faculty of Linguistics and Literary Studies
Telephone: +49 (0)521 106 67323
Email: david.schlangen@uni-bielefeld.de