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Real-Life Language Use Across Different Interlocutors: A Naturalistic Observation Study of Adults Varying in Age.


Amid the growing interest in studying language use in real life, this study, for the first time, examined age effects on real-life language use, as well as within-person variations across different interlocutors. We examined speech samples collected via the Electronically Activated Recorder (i.e., portable audio recorder that periodically records ambient sounds) for a larger project. This existing dataset included more than 18,000 sound snippets (50-s long) from 53 American couples (breast cancer patients and their spouses; aged 24 to 94 years) in their natural environments. Sound snippets that included participant speech were coded for different interlocutors and given scores on three linguistic measures that are associated with age-related cognitive changes: usage of unique words, usage of uncommon words, and grammatical complexity. Multilevel models showed that there were no age effects on the three linguistic measures when interlocutors were not taken into account. We found that interlocutors influenced usage of unique words and grammatical complexity. More specifically, compared to talking with their spouse, participants used fewer unique words with children and friends; and used simpler grammatical structures with children, strangers, and in multiparty conversations. Next, we found that interlocutors influenced the associations between age and language use. More specifically, young adults used more unique words and more uncommon words with children than older adults. They used more uncommon words with friends and uttered more complex grammatical structures with strangers than older adults. Our results offer preliminary evidence for a new perspective to understand real-life language use: focusing not only on individual characteristics (i.e., age), but also context (i.e., interlocutors). This perspective should be useful to researchers who are interested in collecting "big data" and understanding cognitive activities in real life.

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