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Are you interested? (Talking in an ATC)

Kernan and Sabsay (1989) have shown that non-disabled persons recognize someone as having a learning disability primarily because of the way that person talks. Such persons are perceived to be socially unskilled and linguistically incompetent. Frequently they are perceived to be rigid, uninterested or even boring during conversation.

Conversation between two people is a highly coordinated, collaborative activity in which the participants alternate in taking turns at either speaking or listening. The current speaker strives to ensure that he or she is being attended to, heard and understood by the current listener. The listener similarly endeavors to indicate to the speaker whether or not he or she has succeeded.

One frequent way a listener signals this attention is through the use of back channels i.e. vocalizations such as uh huh, mm and oh, which the listener intersperses throughout a speaker’s talk. These back channels act as feedback to the speaker and signal that the listener is attending to, and understanding, what is being said (compare the use of head nods and shakes to similarly signal one’s attention to what someone is saying). Back channels, then, are the sounds and words emitted by the current non-speaker, which grease the wheels of conversation (Tottie, 1990:2).

As part of a larger research project I made 16 five-minute audio tape recordings of conversations between non-impaired instructors and trainees with learning disabilities within an Adult Training Centre. These tapes were subsequently transcribed and examined for the occurrence of back channels. Would the way in which persons with learning disabilities use back channels provide any clues as to why non-impaired persons may perceive them to be, say, rigid and uninterested in what they have to say?

By counting the number of back channels used, it was apparent that the instructors used a larger number as well as a larger variety of back channels than the trainees used. Instructors, in fact, used 33 different types of back channel with a total of 241 occurrences. These included, for example, a simple mm or oh in response to something the trainee had said, comments such as that’s alright and great, and questions like did you? and have you? In contrast, however, the trainees used only nine types of back channel (less than one-third of the number used by the instructors) with a total of just 138 occurrences.

Schegloff (1982) notes that a variety of back channels may be used by speakers and that, interspersed throughout conversation, one finds markers of surprise (e.g. really?), assessments (e.g. you’re kidding), and the like. He suggests that it is this availability of a range of back channels, and therefore the possibility of varying the composition of these during a speaker’s long stretch of talk, that contributes to the speaker’s perception of the listener’s level of interest. The suggestion is that if the listener varies the back channels he or she produces during the speaker’s long spate of talk, this marks the listener’s baseline of interest i.e. the variety is perceived to signal that the listener is interested in what the speaker is saying. However, if the listener uses the same back channel in four or five consecutive slots during a speaker’s extended talk, the speaker may perceive that the listener is uninterested in his or her talk. In other words, if I am talking and you, as the listener, intersperse my talk with a variety of back channels such as, really?, oh I see, uh huh, then I am likely to consider that you are interested in what I have to say. However, if you respond to my talk by producing the same back channel over and over again (e.g. yeah, yeah, yeah) then it is probable that I will consider that you are either not listening properly or that you are uninterested in what I have to say.

Now, given that trainees have a more reduced range of back channel tokens available to them than the instructors have, it is perhaps not surprising to find that trainees do not substantially vary their back channels when producing them in response to a long stretch of talk. Trainees simply do not have the same linguistic resources available to them. A typical example of this is shown in the following transcript extract.

Instructor:  Like they cost a few pesetas and that.

Trainee:     Yeah.

Instructor:  It’s like a hundred and seventy five pesetas to the pound.

Trainee:     Yeah.

Instructor:  But I mean, I’m sure Yvette can handle that.

Trainee:     Yeah.

Instructor:  The things that are luxuries like…

Trainee:     Yeah.

Instructor:  …Kit Kats and things…

Trainee:     Yeah.

Instructor:  …like that, and cakes like that, are just…

Trainee:     Yeah.

Instructor:  …a tiny bit dearer.

Trainee:     Yeah.

In this extract the trainee intersperses the yeah back channel throughout the instructor’s extended stretch of talk. Each yeah is used recursively one after the other, with seven instances of the use of yeah in a series. Whilst I have no sure way of knowing whether or not the instructor perceived the trainee to be uninterested in his talk (without, say, interviewing the instructor and asking his opinion), examples such as this may go some way to explaining why persons with learning disabilities may be perceived as rigid, uninterested or boring. At the very least they provide an interesting analogue which may be worth exploring further. They also suggest the possibility of training persons with learning disabilities to increase their repertoire of back channels in an attempt to alleviate some of the negative perceptions held by non-impaired conversational partners.


  • Kernan, K.T. and Sabsay, S. (1989) “Communication in social interactions: aspects of an ethnography of communication of mildly mentally handicapped adults” in Beveridge, M., Conti-Ramsden, G. and Leudar, I. (eds) The language and communication of mentally handicapped people London: Chapman-Hall.
  • Schegloff, E.A. (1982) “Discourse as an interactional achievement: some uses of ‘uh huh’ and other things that come between sentences” in Tannen, D. Analyzing discourse: text and talk Georgetown University Round Table on Language and Linguistics. Georgetown: Georgetown University Press.
  • Tottie, G. (1990) Conversational style in British and American English: the case of backchannels Mimeo, Department of English, University of Uppsala.

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