Reading is disrupted by intelligible background speech: Evidence from eye-tracking

Vasilev, Martin R., Liversedge, Simon Paul orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-8579-8546, Rowan, Daniel, Kirkby, Julie A. and Angele, Bernhard (2019) Reading is disrupted by intelligible background speech: Evidence from eye-tracking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 45 (11). pp. 1484-1512. ISSN 0096-1523

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It is not well understood whether background speech affects the initial processing of words during reading or only the later processes of sentence integration. Additionally, it is not clear how eye-movements support text comprehension in the face of distraction by background speech and noise. In the present research, participants read single sentences (Experiment 1) and short paragraphs (Experiments 2-3) in four sound conditions: silence, speech-spectrum Gaussian noise, English speech (intelligible to participants), and Mandarin speech (unintelligible to participants). Intelligible speech did not affect the lexical access of words and had a limited effect on the first-pass fixations of words. However, it led to more regressions and more re-reading fixations compared to both unintelligible speech and silence. The results suggested that the distraction is mostly semantic in nature, and there was only limited evidence for a contribution of phonology. Finally, intelligible speech disrupted comprehension only when participants were prevented from re-reading previous words. These findings suggest that the semantic properties of irrelevant speech can disrupt the ongoing reading process, but that this disruption occurs in the post-lexical stages of reading when participants need to integrate words to form the sentence context and to construct a coherent discourse of the text.

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