Backchannel Facts


What is a Backchannel?

backchannels are feedback given while someone else is talking, to show interest, attention and/or a willingness to keep listening. backchannels are typically short utterances such as uh-huh.

Here is a real example, also with audio:

H Is it like a party, like, ``rave'' type party? or like
Cwell, it's someone's house
H yeah
Cthere's going to be, I mean there's like, they're going to be spinning. So, in that sense, maybe, but it's just at someone's house, like
H yah-yeah
Cit's in the middle of the night, that too, but.

backchannels are also sometimes known as "response tokens," "reactive tokens," "minimal responses," and "continuers".


Why do People Backchannel?

Dialog includes not only the information that is being exchanged, but also the management of the communication and the expression of nuances of attitude and intention [7]. This is done sometimes with words, but more often with subtle uses of prosody, gesture, gaze, and backchannel utterances. This dimension of interaction helps make dialogs more enjoyable and more efficient.


What are the Most Common Backchannels?

Here are five of the most typical backchannels in a few languages.

American
English [5]
Mexican
Spanish
Japanese [5] Iraqi
Arabic
French [10] German [1]
1 yeah si un aih oui ah (ach)
2 uh-huh si si ee nam ouais ja (ahja, aja)
3 hm ajá aa repetitionhumhum mhm
4 right mjm laughter mmmhum nein (ne)
5 okay laughter hai hmm ah okay

other languages

some less-common backchannels in English


Why Aren't These Words in Dictionaries?

Backchannels exhibit enormous fine phonetic variation. Alongside uh-huh, there are sounds like uh-hm, uhh-hm, un-hn, uh-huh-uh-huh, huhm, and so on. These are less words than they are dynamic creations, with each specific backchannel incorporating some exact sequence of sounds chosen to express some exact combination of nuances [6].


Does Backchannel Behavior Differ Among Languages?

One clear difference is in the frequency: backchannels are very common in Japanese, fairly common in English, Dutch, Arabic, and Korean, probably somewhat less common in German, and significantly less common in Chinese and Finnish [2,3,5,8]. However this is also affected strongly by other factors, including the personalities of the speaker and listener, the context, and the culture [4].


When Should One Backchannel?

Obviously one can backchannel when the other person has the floor, but backchanneling just anytime can be rude. Listeners should in general give backchannel feedback at times when the other person seems to be welcoming it, and in many cases these times are marked by prosodic features of the speaker's utterances: these in effect are cues for feedback, although responding is generally optional.

For English, one such feature is a region of low pitch lasting 110 milliseconds or more (see diagram); about 700 milliseconds after this is a good time to produce a backchannel.

Different rules apply for other languages (link).

Arabic in particular is very different, although there's still a prosodic cue, as described in Al Bayyari's Flash tutorial


Why are Backchannels Important?

Backchanneling skills are important for people wishing to be able to function as supportive, cooperative listeners. They are also of scientific interest, as they are the most accessible example of the real-time responsiveness that underpins many successful interpersonal interactions.


Where Can I Hear Audio Clips with Backchannels?

English: Excerpts 02, 04, and 05 at Discourse Achievement I, example 6.14 at Sequence Organization in Interaction (both by Schegloff), and examples 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 13, 23, 25, 26, and 29 at Conversational Grunts.

Spanish: here

Arabic: here


How Can I Teach Students to Backchannel Properly?

It can be helpful for learners to listen repeatedly to dialogs and observe the patterns of backchanneling. This requires actual unrehearsed dialogs, not acted conversations, since they typically follow different rules.

It can also be helpful for learners to practice both roles: active listening by producing backchannels appropriately, and engaging talk by providing clear opportunities for the listener to backchannel.


Why Did You Make this Page?

While working on ways to make spoken dialog systems more usable (link), I have learned a lot about backchannels. I created this page to make the key facts more accessible to language learners and language teachers.


References

[1] Feedback in Second Language Acquisition, Jens Allwood. in Adult Language Acquisition: Cross Linguistic Perspectives, II: The Results, Clive Perdue, editor. pp 196-235. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[2] The conversational use of reactive tokens in English, Japanese and Mandarin. Patricia M. Clancy, Sandra A. Thompson, Ryoko Suzuki and Hongyin Tao, 1996. Journal of Pragmatics, 26, pp. 355-387.

[3] Backchannel responses as strategic responses in bilingual speakers' conversations. Bettina Heinz, 2003. Journal of Pragmatics, 35, pp. 1113-1142.

[4] That's Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships. Deborah Tannen. Ballentine, 1986.

[5] Prosodic Features which Cue Back-Channel Feedback in English and Japanese. Nigel Ward and Wataru Tsukahara, 2000. Journal of Pragmatics, 32, pp. 1177-1207.

[6] Non-Lexical Conversational Sounds in American English. Nigel Ward, 2006. Pragmatics and Cognition, 14, pp. 113-184.

[7] On Getting a Word in Edgewise. Victor Yngve, 1970. in Papers from the Sixth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, pp. 567-577.

[8] Identifying Units in Interaction: Reactive Tokens in Korean and English Conversations. Richard F. Young and Jina Lee. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 8, 2004, pp 380-407.

[9] Listener Response. Deng Xudong. In The Pragmatics of Interaction, Sigurd D'hondt, Joan-Ola Ostman and Jef Versucheren (eds.), John Benjamins, 2009.

[10] Analysis of 15 French Dialogs Containing 950 Back-Channels, David Novick, Jean-Baptiste Martel, Jean-Baptiste Wolff, Nigel Ward, May 2011.


Nigel Ward's Home Page February, 2007, updated December 2010