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Linguistic correction on backchanneling

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Unmute was kind enough to point out the fact that the term “backchannel” is already a word used by linguists to designate the signals listeners give to a speaker to reaffirm that they’re still listening, and still engaged.

According to unmute:

What I find striking, from a language perspective, is that the linguistic term “backchanneling” is semantically antithetical to the phenomenon that has been so fervently discussed on her site.

In linguistics, to backchannel is to respond to a speaker with nonverbal or semiverbal responses (such as nodding or grunting “uh huh”, respectively), establishing a rapport between speaker and listener and encouraging the speaker to continue talking.

I have a secret passion for linguistics, though I haven’t studied it since College. I was impressed with this posting and intrigued enough to explore further. I followed the link unmute provided but also searched on backchannel + linguistic and found extensive research on this topic.

For instance, one of the problems that occurs when non-Japanese communicate with Japanese, regardless of the language used (English or Japanese), is that we don’t provide the Japanese version of backchannel signals, called aizuchi. Not doing so, or misunderstanding the Japanese use of aizuchi can lead to confusion:

For a foreigner, aizuchi, can cause confusion when he/she is speaking. The speaker may misconstrue the expressions by his/her Japanese audience as a sign of agreement where none is intended. Ironically, a lack of aizuchi by a foreigner can lead a Japanese speaker to feel that he/she is not being understood.

This reminded me of a very interesting conversation that occured at Joi Ito’s weblog, when he made the statement:

A lot of people ask me about Japanese customs. They learn the formal way to hand business cards, they bow deeply when they meet Japanese and they call me “Ito-san.” Stop that. It’s silly.

(I don’t use the honorific Ito-san because we’re communicating within an English environment – it would have felt inappropriate. )

Not everyone agrees with Joi, but I think his next paragraph is the real key to what he is saying, and directly reflects back on aizuchi:

Rather than trying to act Japanese, I suggest that people visiting Japan be sensitive and aware of the nuances in the interactions. It is more about timing, loudness, space and smiles than it is about how your hold your business card or calling people “Ito-san.” When in doubt, shut up and listen. When smiled at, smile back. If you’re freaking someone out, back off instead of continuing your interrogation.

How I read Joi’s statements is that rather than memorize overt phrases and movements, a better aid to communication is to stay alert for, and pay attention to, subtle cues in the conversation. Such as aizuchi.

Since it is unlikely I will ever visit Japan, I don’t have any interest in learning the language, but I found this linguistic concept to be extremely interesting, and plan on pursuing it further.

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