The Cocktail Party Effect

Last summer, at the IALLT Biennial conference, when I described the addition of parakeets and finches in the set up of our language center, someone remarked “Of course! How brilliant! The Cocktail Party Effect!.”

I never knew that there was a name for this, nor that it had a page in Wikipedia. I just thought I was providing something more interesting than Muzak in order to help students feel less self conscious while doing their audio/video recording in our center. (A plug: we use DL Recorder from Dartmouth)

Lest you think that my staff and I are all wandering about in Pucci hostess gowns wih appletinis in hand, let me provide you with a brief description of the Cocktail Party Effect:

The “cocktail party effect” (the ability to focus one’s listening attention on a single talker among a cacophony of conversations and background noise) has been recognized for some time. This specialized listening ability may be because of characteristics of the human speech production system, the auditory system, or high-level perceptual and language processing.


(from a paper by Barry Arons of the MIT Media Lab)

Huzzah! A wee bit of method within our madness: the birds’ chatter helps the students focus on their own sounds (and recording) by drowning out other sounds and/or silence….

The parakeets and the finches, with their usual disregard for quiet (actually, in the case of the ‘keets it is a true HATRED of silence as they think that means a predator lurks nearby), provide hours of chirps, whistles, squawks and screams.

We have a sign on the front desk that says “THIS IS A NOISY LAB” We are the only lab set up with recording tools and headsets, and given the high ceilings and lack of carrels (I feel a Flickr fotoset coming soon), a person recording his or her Chinese tones or Japanese videos or even Skyping with mom back in Bulgaria can feel quite exposed and awkward. The menagerie offsets that.

And if they can’t work while the feathers fly, students can go into a private room to record or they can go to the opposite corner of the lab with the 75 gallon fishtank and our African cychlids for some peace and relative quiet.

Barbara has been working for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for about 15 years. In addition to teaching Spanish she runs a somewhat unconventional language center. Prior to this adventure in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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