Driving affects language – no kidding

Raconteurs of the world beware: driving has a significant effect on language ability, according to researchers from the University of Illinois. 

An experiment conducted at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology tested the story telling skills of chattering motorists.   

Working in pairs, participants – one driver and one passenger – were tested on their ability to re-tell a story whilst behind the wheel.  Performance deteriorated when a participant embarked upon a session of chin-wagging either on the phone or with a passenger.

They were involved in dialogue either in the vehicle or via mobile phone before being asked to recount what they had discussed.  The experiment, published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, was repeated both while driving and during a period of inactivity. 

 The difference in stationary conversation and conversation in transit was significant: “The drivers remembered 20 per cent less of what was told to them when they were driving,” reported Professor Gary Dell.

So one can safely assume then that your average London cabbie’s ill-informed, semi-racist stream of consciousness warblings are likely to instantly turn into a lecture on the exciting use of symbolism in Thomas Pynchon’s novels upon taking his hands from the wheel.  Either way though, it still remains unlikely you will get a word in.

Of those involved in the experiment half were over 65; the rest in their late teens or early twenties.  Older participants fared worse at the multi-tasking experiment, with the whipper-snappers enjoying more accuracy.

“You might think that talking is an easy thing to do and that comprehending language is easy. But it’s not. Speech production and speech comprehension are attention-demanding activities, and so they ought to compete with other tasks that require your attention – like driving.” 

While emphasis is often on the adverse effects of speech on driving, the study shows that its effects are equally detrimental the other way around.

 “This study shows that various aspects of language go to hell when you’re driving,” says Professor Art Kramer, also involved in the experiment. Whether or not this effect is exacerbated whilst speeding back from a Romford Wetherspoons shortly after closing time is yet to be determined.