Debby Keller-Cohen recently gave a presentation at the meeting of the Gerontological Society of America (San Diego, November 15). The title of Debby's presentation was "Sensitivity to Listener Needs and Social Relations in Older Adults". For the past several years, Debbie has been working on an extensive research project about language and aging with a focus on the oldest old, those over 85. Her research focuses in particular on the relationship between the maintenance of language skills and the nature of one's social environment and how gender, education and cognition affect that relationship. This unique and important research places Debbie right at the interface between linguistics and many of social sciences with which linguistics interacts. The presentation at the Gerontological Society reports on a part of this research project. In this presentation, Debbie shows that the frequency and quality of social interactions by older adults significantly affects their ability to successfully communicate with listeners of different age groups. This research not only has implications not only for our understanding of language, but it also is relevant to family members of older adults, policy makers and organizations that provide services to older adults. The abstract of the talk is given below.

Sensitivity to Listener Needs and Social Relations in Older Adults

Speakers have been shown to adapt their speech depending on the real or perceived characteristics of listeners different in age. Does the social engagement of older adults affect their ability to adapt their speech to listeners of different ages?

Participants (N=34, mean=82 yrs) were surveyed about their social interactions for the past two weeks: number of people, the frequency of interactions, and their satisfaction. Two language tasks were each used in speaking to a 10 year and a 30 year old: instructions-explain how to make a sandwich, and narration of a story from a picture sequence.

Language variables were: number of words (TOTWD), number of different words (DIFFWD), syntactic complexity (left branching constructions, SYNCOM), propositional density (IDEADEN), and number of propositions (TOTIDEA). A repeated measures ANOVA for each language variable, using demographics and frequency of total interactions as independent variables, revealed a main effect for frequency of interactions and a significant interaction between task and frequency of interactions. A multiple regression found that the frequency of interactions explained a significant amount of the variance for the TOTWD, DIFFWD, and TOTIDEA in the sandwich task when talking to a ten year old.

This study suggests that older adults with more social interactions showed more linguistic adaptations when using procedural language with a child and points to the need to examine different types of language use when assessing social engagement in aging. Finally, it points to the need to further assess how social contact impacts language use in aging.