Analyzing the meaning of background speech is obligatory, distraction by meaning is not
Beaman, C. P., Marsh, J. E. and Jones, D. M. (2012) Analyzing the meaning of background speech is obligatory, distraction by meaning is not. In: Euronoise 2012, 10-13 June 2012, Prague.
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The effects of background English and Welsh speech on memory for visually-presented English words were contrasted amongst monolingual English speakers and bilingual Welsh-English speakers. Equivalent disruption to the English language task was observed amongst Welsh-speaking bilinguals from both English and Welsh speech, but English-speaking monolinguals displayed less disruption from the Welsh speech. An effect of the meaning of the background speech was therefore apparent amongst bilinguals even when the focal memory task was presented in a different language from the distracting speech. A second experiment tested only English-speaking monolinguals, using English as background speech, but varied the demands of the focal task. Participants were asked either to count the number of vowels in words visually presented for future recall, or to rate them for pleasantness, before subsequently being asked to recall the words. Greater disruption to recall was observed from meaningful background speech when participants initially rated the words for pleasantness than when they initially counted the vowels within the words. These results show that background speech is automatically analyzed for meaning, but whether the meaning of the background speech causes distraction is critically dependent upon the nature of the focal task. The data underscore the need to consider not only the nature of office noise, but also the demands and content of the work task when assessing the effects of office noise on work performance.