Beyond Words

Identification of Back-Channel Communication Rules in Arabic

and Development of Training Methods

supported by DARPA DSO, 2005-2008 (Project Charter)

One of the signs of listening attentively and supportively is occasional back-channel feedback, small utterances produced by the listener while the speaker continues his turn. To do this appropriately it is necessary to understand when back-channels are and are not welcome. In Arabic, times when the listener is especially welcome to back-channel are indicated by various prosodic features produced by the speaker, including a steep pitch downslope (audio examples). Details appear in A Prosodic Feature that Invites Back-Channels in Egyptian Arabic, by Nigel G. Ward and Yaffa Al Bayyari, to appear in Perspectives in Arabic Linguistics XX, 2007 and for Iraqi Arabic in A Case Study in the Identification of Prosodic Cues to Turn-Taking: Back-Channeling in Arabic, by Nigel G. Ward and Yaffa Al Bayyari, Interspeech 2006, based on analysis of our own small corpus, The UTEP Corpus of Iraqi Arabic (pdf).

Since this pattern is different from that used in English, we have developed a training sequence and software to teach learners of Arabic to detect this prosodic cue and respond appropriately. Experiments showed that this enables learners to acquire a basic competence in a short time. This work is described in Learning to Show You're Listening, by Nigel G. Ward, Rafael Escalante, Yaffa Al Bayyari, and Thamar Solorio, Computer Assisted Language Learning, volume 20, pages 385 - 407, 2007. The software consists of three pieces (all preliminary versions):

These differences in dialog behavior can cause intercultural misunderstandings. By presenting resynthesisized stimuli to 36 American and 18 Arab subjects, we found that English speakers tend to misinterpret the pitch-downdash cue, perceiving it as an expression of negative affect. We further show that this tendency is substantially alleviated by our training sequence. This is reported in American and Arab Perceptions of an Arabic Turn-Taking Cue, to appear in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

We also did a small study on The Role of Gesture in Inviting Back-Channels in Arabic, which was presented at the 10th Meeting of the International Pragmatics Association, 2007.

The project personnel were: Nigel Ward, Yaffa Al Bayyari, Rafael Escalante, Marisa Flecha-Garcia, Thamar Solorio, Anais Rivera, David Novick, Bill Lucker, and Jon Amastae.

Tools and Methods for Analyzing Dialog Patterns

maintained by Nigel Ward