The term "backchannel" was designed to imply that there are two channels of communication operating simultaneously during a conversation. The predominant channel is that of the speaker who directs primary speech flow. The secondary channel of communication (or backchannel) is that of the listener which functions to provide continuers or assessments, defining a listener's comprehension and/or interest.
Due to research development in recent years, backchannel responses have been expanded to include sentence completions, requests for clarification, brief statements, and non-verbal responses and now fall into three categories: non-lexical, phrasal, and substantive. A non-lexical backchannel is a vocalized sound that has little or no referential meaning but still verbalizes the listener's attention. In English, sounds like "uh-huh" and "hmm" serve this role. Phrasal backchannels most commonly assess or acknowledge a speaker's communication with simple words or phrases (for example, "Really?" or "Wow!" in English). Substantive backchannels consist of more substantial turn-taking by the listener and usually manifest as asking for clarification or repetitions.
Backchannel communication is present in all cultures and languages, though frequency and use may vary. Confusion or distraction can occur during an intercultural encounter if participants from both parties are not accustomed to the same backchannel norms.
- White, Sheida. "Backchannels across cultures: A study of Americans and Japanese ." Language in society (1989): 59-76.
- Li, Han. "Patterns of Backchannel Responses in Canadian-Chinese Conversations" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA, May 23, 2007 <Not Available>. 2009-02-04 <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p169308_index.html>
- Young, Richard F. and Jina Lee. "Identifying units in interaction: Reactive tokens in Korean and English conversations." Journal of Sociolinguistics (2004): 380-407.
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