Beyond Words: Identification of Back-Channel Communication Rules in Arabic and Development of Training Methods

Project Charter

The rules governing real-time interpersonal interaction are today not well understood. With only a few exceptions, there are no quantitative, predictive rules explaining how to respond in real-time, in the sub-second range, in order to be an effective communicator in a given culture. This can be a problem in intercultural interactions; if an American knows only the words of a foreign language, not the rules of interaction, he can easily appear uninterested, ill-informed, thoughtless, discourteous, passive, indecisive, untrusting, dull, pushy, or worse. Short of long-term cultural exposure, there are today no reliable ways to train speakers to understand and follow such rules and attain mastery of interaction at the sub-second level. The purpose of this research is to increase our knowledge and know-how in this area.

In the first year the main tasks are to

  1. Discover the basic rules governing back-channel behavior (production of uh-huh, etc. as a display of serious listening) in Eastern Arabic
  2. Compare these with the rules governing such behavior in American English and quantify the importance of following the right rules
  3. Develop methods for training American speakers to understand and emulate the rules in Arabic and measure learnability
  4. Produce a toolset for the automatic discovery of new rules in new languages and cultures
  5. Apply these training methods in ISI's Tactical Language Trainer
  6. In addition, help add back-channel behaviors to the animated characters of the Trainer to improve versimilitude

The initial scenario for this work will be obtaining information from an Iraqi civilian. The civilian is assumed to have enough knowledge of English words and syntax to communicate, but to have no familiarity with American patterns of interaction. The civilian is assumed to be uncomfortable in this situation, and perhaps not strongly motivated to talk at length. Thus the soldier needs to be culturally sensitive and in particular needs to use the behavior patterns involved in being a good listener in Arab dialog.

The results of this work should be of direct value to personnel in Iraq and will also demonstrate the importance of these phenomena, thereby inspiring others to further explore these dimensions of communication.

In the second year the projected main tasks are to

  1. Extend the models of Iraqi Arabic and American English back-channel behavior to be more accurate in more types of dialog contexts
  2. Develop and evaluate potentially more cost-effective training methods
  3. Examine common Iraqi/American communication breakdowns and quantify the causes
  4. Evaluate the relative values, as perceived by native-speakers, of good real-time interactional competencies, versus other dimensions of linguistic and cultural knowledge
  5. Continue to improve the toolset, contribute to the Trainer, and exploit other opportunities
Project Summary and Results