Information density and overlap in spoken dialogue

Nina Dethlefs, Helen Hastie, Heriberto Cuayahuitl, Yanchao Yu, Verena Rieser, Oliver Lemon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
123 Downloads (Pure)


Incremental dialogue systems are often perceived as more responsive and natural because they are able to address phenomena of turn-taking and overlapping speech, such as backchannels or barge-ins. Previous work in this area has often identified distinctive prosodic features, or features relating to syntactic or semantic completeness, as marking appropriate places of turn-taking. In a separate strand of work, psycholinguistic studies have established a connection between information density and prominence in language—the less expected a linguistic unit is in a particular context, the more likely it is to be linguistically marked. This has been observed across linguistic levels, including the prosodic, which plays an important role in predicting overlapping speech.

In this article, we explore the hypothesis that information density (ID) also plays a role in turn-taking. Specifically, we aim to show that humans are sensitive to the peaks and troughs of information density in speech, and that overlapping speech at ID troughs is perceived as more acceptable than overlaps at ID peaks. To test our hypothesis, we collect human ratings for three models of generating overlapping speech based on features of: (1) prosody and semantic or syntactic completeness, (2) information density, and (3) both types of information. Results show that over 50% of users preferred the version using both types of features, followed by a preference for information density features alone. This indicates a clear human sensitivity to the effects of information density in spoken language and provides a strong motivation to adopt this metric for the design, development and evaluation of turn-taking modules in spoken and incremental dialogue systems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)82-97
JournalComputer Speech and Language
Early online date10 Nov 2015
Publication statusPublished - May 2016


  • Spoken dialogue systems


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