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Proceedings of the Eighth Italian Conference on Computational Linguistics CliC-it 2021

Elisabetta Fersini
Marco Passarotti
Viviana Patti

Contributed Papers: Long Papers

Detecting Age-Related Linguistic Patterns in Dialogue: Toward Adaptive Conversational Systems

Lennert Jansen, Arabella Sinclair, Margot J. van der Goot, Raquel Fernández et Sandro Pezzelle


This work explores an important dimension of variation in the language used by dialogue participants: their age. While previous work showed differences at various linguistic levels between age groups when experimenting with written discourse data (e.g., blog posts), previous work on dialogue has largely been limited to acoustic information related to voice and prosody. Detecting fine-grained linguistic properties of human dialogues is of crucial importance for developing AI-based conversational systems which are able to adapt to their human interlocutors. We therefore investigate whether, and to what extent, current text-based NLP models can detect such linguistic differences, and what the features driving their predictions are. We show that models achieve a fairly good performance on age-group prediction, though the task appears to be more challenging compared to discourse. Through in-depth analysis of the best models’ errors and the most predictive cues, we show that, in dialogue, differences among age groups mostly concern stylistic and lexical choices. We believe these findings can inform future work on developing controlled generation models for adaptive conversational systems.

Texte intégral

This work received funding from the University of Amsterdam’s Research Priority Area Human(e) AI and from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 819455).

1. Introduction

1Research on developing conversational agents has experienced impressive progress, particularly in recent years (McTear 2020). However, artificial systems that can tune their language to that of a particular individual or group of users continue to pose more of a challenge. Recent examples of this line of research include adaptation at style level (Ficler and Goldberg 2017), persona-specific traits (Zhang et al. 2018), or other traits such as sentiment (Dathathri et al. 2020).

2Personalised interaction is of crucial importance to obtain systems that can be trusted by users and perceived as natural (Goot and Pilgrim 2019), but most of all to be accessible to varying user profiles, rather than targeted at one particular user group (Zheng et al. 2019; Zeng et al. 2020).

3In this work, we focus on one particular aspect that may influence conversational agent success: user age profile. We investigate whether the linguistic behaviour of conversational participants differs across age groups using state-of-the-art NLP models on purely textual data, without considering vocal cues. We aim to detect age from characteristics of language use and adapt to this signal, rather than work from ground-truth metadata about user demographics. This is in the interest of preserving privacy, and from the perspective that while age and language use may have a relationship, this will not be linear (Pennebaker and Stone 2003) and there are individual differences.

4Previous work on age detection in dialogue has focused on speech features, which are known to systematically vary across age groups. For example, Wolters et al. (2009) learn logistic regression age classifiers from a small dialogue dataset using different acoustic cues supplemented with a small set of hand-crafted lexical features, while Li et al. (2013) develop SVM classifiers using acoustic and prosodic features extracted from scripted utterances spoken by participants interacting with an artificial system. In contrast to this line of work, we investigate whether different age groups can be detected from textual linguistic information rather than voice-related cues. We explore whether, and to what extent, various state-of-the-art NLP models are able to capture such differences in dialogue data as a preliminary step to age-group adaptation by conversational agents.

5We build on the work of Schler et al. (2006), who focus on age detection in written discourse using a corpus of blog posts. The authors learn a Multi-Class Real Winnow classifier leveraging a set of pre-determined style- and content-based features, including part-of-speech categories, function words, and the 1000 unigrams with the highest information gain in the training set. They find that content features (lexical unigrams) yield higher accuracy (74%) than style features (72%), while their best results (76.2%) are obtained with their combination. We extend this investigation in several key ways: (1) we leverage state-of-the-art NLP models that allow us to learn representations end-to-end, without the need to specify concrete features in advance; (2) we apply this approach to dialogue data, using a large-scale dataset of transcribed, spontaneous open-domain dialogues, and also use this approach to replicate the experiments of Schler et al. (2006) on disccourse; (3) we show that text-based models can indeed detect age-related differences, even in the case of very sparse signal at the level of dialogue utterances; and finally (4) we carry out an in-depth analysis of the models’ predictions to gain insight on which elements of language use are most informative.1

6Our work can be considered a first step toward the modeling of age-related linguistic adaptation by AI conversational systems. In particular, our results can inform future work on controlled text generation for dialogue agents (Dathathri et al. 2020; Madotto et al. 2020).

2. Data

7We use a dataset of dialogue data where information about the age of the speakers involved in the conversation is available (see the dialogue snippets in Figure 1), i.e., the spoken partition of the British National Corpus (Love et al. 2017). This partition includes spoken informal open-domain conversations between people that were collected between 2012 and 2016 via crowd-sourcing, and then recorded and transcribed by the creators. Dialogues can be between two or more interlocutors, and are annotated along several dimensions including age and gender together with geographic and social indicators. Speaker ages are categorized in ten brackets: 0-10, 11-18, 19-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, 70-79, 80-89, and 90-99.

Figure 1

Image 100000000000039F000001B1BD9A63253C69086E.jpg

Example dialogue snippets from speak-ers of different age groups in the British National Corpus. We conjecture that stylistic and lexical differences between age groups can be detected. Here, we experiment at the level of the utterance

8We focus on conversations that took place between two interlocutors, and only consider dialogues between people of the same age group. We then restrict our investigation to a binary opposition: younger vs. older age group. We split the dialogues into their constituent utterances (e.g., from each dialogue snippet in Figure 1 we extract three utterances), and further pre-process them by removing non-alphabetical characters. Only samples which are not empty after pre-processing are kept. For the younger group, we consider the 19-29 bracket, which contains 138,662 utterances. For the older, we group conversations from five brackets: 50-59, 60-69, 70-79, 80-89, and 90-99 (hence, 50+), which sums up to a total of 33,641 utterances. The choice of grouping these brackets is a trade-off between experimenting with fairly distinct age groups (the age difference between them is at least 20 years) and obtaining large-enough data for each of them.

9We randomly sample 33,614 utterances from the 19-29 group in order to experiment with a balanced number of samples per group. The resulting dataset, that we use for our experiments, includes around 67K utterances with an average length of 11.7 tokens. Descriptive statistics are in Table 1.

Table 1: Descriptive statistics of the dataset. L means length, i.e., number of tokens in a sample




mean L (± sd)

min-max L




11.3 (±15.98)





12.1 (±21.62)





11.7 (±19.0)


3. Method

10We frame the problem as a binary classification task: given some text, we seek to predict whether the age class of its speaker is younger or older.

3.1 Models

11We experiment with various models, that we briefly describe below. Details on model training and evaluation are given at the end of the section.


12Our simplest models are based on n-grams, which have the advantage of being highly interpretable. Each data entry (i.e., a dialogue utterance) is split into chunks of all possible contiguous sequences of n tokens. The resulting vectorized features are used by a logistic regression model to estimate the odds of a text sample belonging to a certain age group. We experiment with unigram, bigram and trigram models. A bigram model uses unigrams and bigrams, and a trigram model unigrams, bigrams, and trigrams.


13We use a standard Long Short-Term Memory network (LSTM) (Hochreiter and Schmidhuber 1997) with two layers, embedding size 512, and hidden layer size 1024. Batch-wise padding is applied to variable length sequences. The original model’s bidirectional extension, the bidirectional LSTM (BiLSTM) (Schuster and Paliwal 1997), is also used. Padding is similarly applied to this model, and the following optimal architecture is experimentally found: embedding size 64, 2 layers, and hidden layer size 512. Both RNN models are found to perform optimally for a learning rate of 10-3.


14We experiment with a Transformer-based model, i.e., BERT (Devlin et al. 2019). BERT is pre-trained to learn deeply bidirectional language representations from massive amounts of unlabeled textual data. We experiment with the base, uncased version of BERT, in two settings: by using its pre-trained frozen embeddings (BERTfrozen) and by fine-tuning the embeddings on our age classification task (BERTFT). BERT embeddings are followed by dropout with probability 0.1 and a linear layer with input size 768.

Experimental details

15The dataset is randomly split into a training (75%), validation (15%), and test (10%) set. Each model with a given configuration of hyperparameters is run 5 times with different random initializations. All models are trained on an NVIDIA TitanRTX GPU.

16The n-gram models are trained in a One-vs-Rest (OvR) fashion, and optimized using the Limited-memory Broyden–Fletcher–Goldfarb–Shanno (L-BFGS) algorithm (Liu and Nocedal 1989), with a maximum of 106 iterations. The n-gram models are trained until convergence or for the maximum number of iterations.

17LSTMs and BERT models are optimized using Adam (Kingma and Ba 2015), and trained for 10 epochs, with an early stopping patience of 3 epochs. The RNN-based models’ embeddings are jointly trained, and optimal hyperparameters (i.e., learning rate, embedding size, hidden layer size, and number of layers) are determined using the validation set and a guided grid-search. BERTFT is fine-tuned on the validation set for 10 epochs, or until the early stopping criterion is met. BERT has a maximum input length of 512 tokens. Sequences exceeding this length are truncated.

4. Results

18We report accuracy and F1 for each age group in Table 2. As can be seen, the performance of all models is well beyond chance level, which indicates that age-related linguistic differences can be detected, to some extent, even by a simple model based on unigrams. At the same time, BERT fine-tuned on the task turns out to be the best-performing model both in terms of accuracy (0.729) and F1 scores, which confirms the effectiveness of Transformer-based representations to encode fine-grained linguistic differences. However, it can be noted that the model based on trigrams is basically on par with BERT in terms of accuracy (0.722), and well above both the LSTM and BiLSTM models (0.693 and 0.691, respectively). A similar pattern is observed for F1 scores, where BERTFT and the trigram model achieve comparable performance, with LSTMs being overall behind.

Table 2


Accuracy↑ better

F1(19−29) ↑ better

1 F1(50+) ↑ better






0.701 (0.007)

0.708 (0.009)

0.693 (0.004)


0.719 (0.002)

0.724 (0.003)

0.714 (0.003)


0.722 (0.001)

0.727 (0.003)

0.717 (0.001)


0.693 (0.003)

0.696 (0.005)

0.691 (0.007)


0.691 (0.009)

0.702 (0.017)

0.679 (0.007)


0.675 (0.003)

0.677 (0.008)

0.673 (0.010)


0.729 (0.002)

0.730 (0.011)

0.727 (0.010)

Test set results averaged over 5 random initializations. Format: average metric (standard error). Values in bold are the highest in the column; in blue, the second highest.

19Overall, our results indicate that text-based models are effective, to some extent, in predicting the age group to which a speaker involved in a dialogue belongs. This complements previous evidence that age-related features can be detected in discourse (Schler et al. 2006), and shows that in dialogue the task appears to be somehow more challenging: The improvement in accuracy with respect to the majority/random baseline is lower in our dialogue results (+22.9%) as compared to what observed in discourse both by Schler et al.  (+32.4%) and by us (+27%) when replicating their study using the models and experimental setup described in Section 3.1. Similarly to dialogue, BERTFT achieves the highest results in discourse (0.742). In contrast, both LSTMs (0.663) and n-grams (0.625) significantly lag behind it. Note that, although based on the same corpus of texts, i.e., the Blog Authorship Corpus,2 and the same 3 age groups, i.e., 13-17, 23-27, and 33+, our replicated results are not fully comparable to those by Schler et al. . Due to our more cautious data pre-processing, we experiment with more samples than they do (677K vs. 511K), which in turn leads to a different majority baseline.

20There can be several reasons why age group detection is more challenging in dialogue than in discourse. For example, in dialogue there may be dimensions of variation, such as turn-taking patterns, that are not captured by our models and experimental setup. Yet, the present results do reveal a few interesting insights. In particular, the very good performance of the trigram model suggests that leveraging ‘local’ linguistic features captured by n-grams is extremely effective in dialogue. This could indicate that differences among various age groups are at the level of local lexical constructions. This deserves further analysis, that we carry out in the next section.

5. Analysis

21We compare the two best-performing models, i.e., BERTFT and the one using trigrams, and aim to shed light on what cues they use to solve the task. We first compare the prediction patterns of the two models, which allows us to detect easy and hard examples. Second, we focus on the trigram model and report the n-grams that turn out to be most informative to distinguish between age groups.

5.1 Comparing Model Predictions

22We split the data for analysis by whether or not both models make the same correct or incorrect prediction, or whether they differ. Table 3 shows the breakdown of these results. As can be seen, a quite large fraction of samples are correctly classified by both models (63.17%), while in 19.78% cases neither of the models make a correct prediction. The remaining cases are almost evenly split between cases where only one of the two is correct. As shown in Figure 2, the 19-29 age group appears to be be slightly easier compared to the 50+ group, where models make more errors.

Table 3: Percentage cases of (non-)overlapping (in)correctly predicted cases between trigram and BERTFT. *Utterance length measured in tokens

% cases

avg. length (± std)*

both correct


13.51 (±18.98)

both wrong


5.82 (±8.33)

only trigram correct


10.44 (±11.66)

only BERT correct


11.53 (±12.12)

23To qualitatively inspect what the utterances falling into these classes look like, in Table 4 we show a few cherry-picked cases for each age group. We notice that, not surprisingly, both models have trouble with backchanneling utterances consisting of a single word, such as yeah, mm, or really?, which are used by both age groups. For example, both models seem to consider yeah as a ‘young’ cue, which leads to wrong predictions when yeah is used by a speaker in the 50+ group. As for the utterance really?, BERTFT assigns it to the 50+ group, while the trigram model makes the opposite prediction. This indicates that certain utterances simply do not contain sufficient distinguishing information, and model predictions that are based on them should therefore not be considered reliable. This seems to be particularly the case for short utterances. Indeed, through comparing the average length of the utterances incorrectly classified by both models (rightmost column of Table 3), we notice that they are much shorter than those belonging to the other cases. This is interesting, and indicates a key challenge in the analysis of dialogue data: on average, shorter utterances contain less signal. On the other hand, short utterances can provide rich conversational signal in dialogue; for example, backchanneling, exclamations, or other acknowledging acts. As a consequence, using length alone as a filter is not an appropriate approach, as it can remove aspects of language use key to differentiating speaker groups.

Table 4: Examples where both models are correct/wrong or only BERTFT /trigram is correct


both correct

both wrong

only BERTFT correct

only trigram correct


I don’t know? sounded crazy

that’s a lot of people for one house

yeah okay




well there you go

oh I’m not very good at that

I’ve got a pen I’ve got a pen


do you have exams again?


empty promises isn’t it?

day of death and ice-cream


and as I say



well if I were you



that would be controversial

yeah it seems to

that’s it


oh really?

he’s got that already

that we caused it

oh I thought you said Godzilla

Figure 2: Distribution of predicted cases by trigram and BERTFT models, split by age groups.

Image 100002010000034A00000253847731DA9F7C7D4C.png

5.2 Most Informative N-grams

24Top 15 most informative n-grams per age group used by the trigram model. coef. is the coefficient (and sign) of the corresponding n-gram for the logistic regression model: the higher its absolute value, the higher the utterance’s odds to belong to one age group. * indicates foul language.

Table 5: Top 15 most informative n-grams per age group used by the trigram model. coef. is the coef-ficient (and sign) of the corresponding n-gram for the logistic regression model: the higher its abso-lute value, the higher the utterance’s odds to be-long to one age group. * indicates foul language














you know








how weird






was like








as well


right right


as in


so erm




mm mm
















we know




yeah exactly

25Analyzing the most informative n-grams used by the trigram model allows us to qualitatively compare the linguistic differences inherent to each age group. In Table 5 we report the top 15 n-grams per group. We find, firstly and intuitively, that colloquial language seems somewhat generational, with unigrams particularly indicative of younger speakers consisting of words such as cool and massive, and for older speakers, words like wonderful. These unigrams are both informative to the model and indicative of differences in both formality and ‘slang’ use across age groups.

26These most informative n-grams also indicate differences in back-channeling use between age groups; younger speaker’s language is more characterized by the use of um, hmm, while the top n-grams in the older category will more likely use yes, right, right right. A feature of younger language also apparent from these examples is in their use of more informal language, which also extends to the use of foul language, making up a percent of the most informative unigrams shown in Table 5.

27Interestingly, while topic words make up many of the most informative n-grams for older speakers in Table 5, younger speakers are more defined by their use of slang words such as wanna, foul language, or adjectives such as cute, cool, and massive. A key finding from Schler et al.  is in the sentiment of language playing an important role, something which some of the most informative n-grams suggest may also be true for the dialogue dataset. As Table 5 demonstrates, younger speakers use more dramatic language such as negative foul words, and positive love, cute, cool; all words with a strong connotative meaning. We believe that further inspection is needed to determine whether the same sentiment pattern will be true of dialogue as it has been reported to be in discourse.

6. Conclusion

28We investigated whether, and to what extent, NLP models can detect age-related linguistic features in dialogue data. We showed that, in line with what we observed for discourse, state-of-the-art models are capable of doing so with a reasonable accuracy, in particular when the dialogue fragment is long enough to contain discriminative signal. At the same time, we found that much simpler models based on n-grams achieve comparable performance, which suggests that, in dialogue, ‘local’ features can be indicative of the language of speakers from different age groups. We showed this to be the case, with both lexical and stylistic cues being informative to these models in this task.

29While we performed the classification task at the level of single dialogue utterances, future work may take into account larger dialogue fragments, such as the entire dialogue or a fixed number of turns. This would make the setup more comparable to discourse, but would require making experimental choices and dealing with extra computational challenges. Moreover, it could be tested whether the language used by a speaker is equally discriminative when talking to a same-age (this work) or a different-age interlocutor.

30Finally, we believe our findings could inform future work on developing adaptive conversational systems. Since consistent language style differences were found between age groups (for example, at the level of exclamatives and acknowledgments), systems whose language generation capabilities aim to be consistent with a given age group should therefore reproduce these patterns. This could be achieved, for example, by embedding one or more discriminative modules that control the generation of a system’s output, which could lead to better, more natural interactions between human speakers and a conversational system.


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1 Code and data available at:

2 The corpus contains blog posts appeared on, gathered in or before August 2004.


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