Summary of How We Talk

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  • Analytical
  • Scientific
  • Concrete Examples


For those who love language, linguistics professor N. J. Enfield’s manual offers a treasure trove of research-supported data. Enfield’s fascinating exploration of how people respond during verbal interactions reveals compelling information on the timing of how people use words and subconsciously assist one another to help conversations run smoothly. Readers lacking a background or in-depth interest in the scientific aspects of communication may find Enfield’s details challenging, such as in his explanation of the millisecond timing of verbal exchanges. However, despite his thornier explanations, most of his material provides a wealth of communication insight that will give you plenty to ponder or discuss during your future conversations.

About the Author

N. J. Enfield teaches linguistics at the University of Sydney and directs the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre.



“What Is Language Like?”  

Most people take about 200 milliseconds to start answering a question – the speed of a single eye blink. Among every 60 words most people speak, at least one will be “um” or “uh.” While chatting, people often say “huh?,” “who?” or another monosyllable to clarify what they heard. Even the most straightforward verbal exchange between two people is truly a complex “precision-timed achievement.” When people chat, the “conversation machine” moves them to link words in ways that adhere to societal and interpretive guidelines. Even the way people “take turns” when they converse varies across languages.

What would interplanetary aliens think about the way humans speak? Some experts, such as American linguist Noam Chomsky, think aliens would assume that folks on Earth use only one language. Languages spoken around the world may not sound the same, but those who use them take turns speaking in similar ways. Everyone uses terms like “mm-hmm,” “um” and “huh?” Depending on the culture, a one-second lag in a conversation can mean the difference in response times that...

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