SLTinfo logo

Distribution of Back Channel Tokens

go to contents icon

The distribution of back channel tokens in conversations between non-impaired and learning disabled interlocutors

ABSTRACT: The use of back channel tokens to contribute to conversation is well attested in the literature. These recipiency tokens, uttered by the current non-speaker, make no claim to take over a full turn at talk and they do not alter the speaker-auditor status. A description of their use in conversations between non-impaired and learning disabled persons is currently lacking. This paper describes the types of back channel tokens used, and their distribution, in dyadic conversations between non-impaired instructors and adult learning disabled trainees. Sixteen five-minute audio tape recordings of naturalistic dyadic conversations within an Adult Training Center are analyzed. Instructors are shown to be more prolific users of back channels than trainees. Moreover, instructors used five tokens with high frequency (restatement, yeah, mm, mm hm and oh) whereas trainees used just two (yeah and mm). Gender differences in the use of these tokens are also described. Male instructors are shown to favor the use of yeah and female instructors the use of mm, mm hm and oh. Further, male trainees are shown to be more likely to use yeah than female trainees and female trainees to use mm more than male trainees. In addition, the analysis is framed in terms of the communication ability of the learning disabled interlocutors. The possibility of interpreting the distribution of these tokens as an index of the extent to which the burden of conversation is shared between the conversational participants is discussed. Further, it is suggested that trainees’ restricted use of back channel tokens could explain why learning disabled persons may be perceived as uninterested or boring. Further work would need to be conducted in order to address these issues.

Introduction

Communication between non-impaired and learning disabled interlocutors

Kernan and Sabsay (1982, 1984, 1989) note that non-disabled persons recognize someone as having a learning disability primarily because of the way that person engages in conversational interaction. Such persons are perceived to be socially unskilled and linguistically incompetent. However, it has been noted (Price-Williams & Sabsay, 1979; Yearley & Brewer, 1989) that persons with learning disabilities are able to use many of the basic strategies that allow one to participate in conversation, e.g. turn-taking, repair and the provision of answers to questions. Conversation, whilst proceeding turn by turn, is in fact a highly co-ordinated, collaborative activity. Typically, the current speaker endeavors to ensure that he or she is being attended to, heard and understood by the listener. The current listener similarly strives to indicate to the speaker whether or not he or she has succeeded (Clark & Schaefer, 1989). One frequent way listeners signal their attention and understanding is through the use of back channels (Yngve, 1970).

Definitions of ‘back channel’

The treatment of bits of talk, marginal words, vocalizations and other related behaviors in the aggregate (i.e. extracted from the ongoing talk of another) began with Fries’ (1952) empirical study of telephone conversations. He reports utterances “that were accompanied (not necessarily followed) by very brief oral signals of attention interjected at irregular intervals but not interrupting the span of talk” (Fries, 1952:42). Fries suggests that these signals of attention are not predictable and that they do not interfere with the flow of the speaker’s utterances. Rather, they serve to signal that the hearer is listening attentively to the speaker.

Kendon (1967:43) refers to these sorts of signals as accompaniment signals, i.e. “…the short utterances that the listener produces as an accompaniment to a speaker, when the speaker is speaking at length.” These signals are also viewed as indicating attention and interest (see also Dittman & Llewellyn, 1968 who use the term listener response).

The term back channel was first coined by Yngve (1970) who also considered that the various devices were used to indicate attention and interest. This concept is expanded to include a broader range of utterance types, including (a) questions, e.g. You’ve started then?, and (b) short comments, e.g. Oh, I agree.

The term ‘back channel’ was subsequently employed by Duncan and his co-workers (see Duncan, 1973, 1974; Duncan & Fiske, 1977; Duncan & Niederehe, 1974). Duncan and Fiske (1977), for example, expand on Yngve’s (1970) work to include (a) verbalized signals such as uh huh, and similar, (b) sentence completions, (c) brief restatements, (d) requests for clarification, (e) longer questions, (f) non verbal signals such as head nods and head shakes, and (g) long verbal signals. For Duncan and his associates, back channel continued to be viewed as a listener’s signal of participation.

Several other researchers have also adopted the term ‘back channel’ since Yngve’s (1970) seminal work. Included amongst these are the following. Brown and Yule (1983:92) who summarize back channel behavior as those “contentless noises…used when a participant wants to indicate to the person speaking that he should continue.” McLaughlin (1984:270) who views back channel utterances as “brief arguments, repetitions, or mirror responses by a listener that are believed to occur primarily during pauses in the turn of the speaker who has the floor.” Nordenstam (1987, cited in Tottie, 1990:4) who stresses the regulatory function of back channels, i.e. the back channel token is seen as encouraging the current speaker to continue with his or her turn. LoCastro (1987) who studied the use of routine conversational back channels used by Japanese speakers following the model set by Duncan and Fiske (1977). White (1989) also used the term ‘back channel’, indicating that its function is to support and yield the floor. For Tottie (1990:2), back channel tokens are seen as indicating listener attentiveness to a speaker’s message, i.e. “the sounds emitted by the current non-speaker, which grease the wheels of conversation but constitute no claim to take over the turn.” She notes the two major functions of back channel tokens reported in the literature. The first is the supportive function, by which is meant that the back channel tokens are seen as signaling understanding and agreement with the prior talk. The second is the regulative function through which the tokens encourage the current speaker to continue with his or her turn.

Not all researchers adopted the term ‘back channel’ subsequent to Yngve’s (1970) work, however. Some of those who did not do so include the following. Oreström (1977, 1983) who used the term supports to describe “a brief, spontaneous reaction to the content of the speaker’s turn” (1983:105). Exclamations and any non-linguistic vocalizations were excluded from this definition. The simple brief supports are considered to act as a ‘go on’ signal to the main speaker and to thereby encourage the speaker to continue with his or her talk. Svartvik (1980) who studied the use of well in conversation referred to these types of tokens as particles. It was considered that the function of such particles is largely phatic rather than embodying any propositional content. Fishman (1978) and Coates (1993) used the term minimal response.

In summary, whilst the definition of back channel tokens is a matter of controversy in the literature, they are generally considered to be response or recipiency tokens, uttered by the current non-speaker, which make no claim to take over a full turn at talk and which do not alter the speaker-auditor status.

The current study

I know of no previous quantitative studies that describe the distribution of back channel tokens as used by persons with learning disabilities. That they are used as a conversational management strategy is well attested. However, a description of the particular types of token used and how they are distributed in dyadic conversations with non-impaired persons is lacking.

Method

Sixteen five-minute audio tape recordings of naturalistic dyadic conversation between non-impaired instructors and trainees with learning disabilities within an Adult Training Center in the North East of England were made. Four male instructors each conversed on separate occasions with two male trainees and four female instructors each conversed with two female trainees. For each instructor, one dyad involved a conversation with a trainee who was perceived to be more able at communicating and the second was with a trainee who was perceived to be less able at communicating (Endnote 1). There were, therefore, eight instructor subjects and 16 trainee subjects. The tapes were subsequently transcribed and examined for the occurrence of back channel tokens.

Operationalization of ‘back channel’

Tottie’s (1990) quantitative technique for analyzing the distribution of back channel tokens in conversation was used to operationalize the notion of back channel. I included (a) readily identified verbalized signals such as mm, yeah, right, (b) brief restatements, and (c) sentence completions. None of these devices appeared from their sequential contexts to constitute a claim to take over a turn at talk. In addition, the readily identified verbalized signals were categorized as either (a) simple, e.g. yeah, mm hm, right, (b) double, including multiple repetitions of the same item, e.g. okay okay, yeah yeah yeah, or (c) complex, consisting of one or several items from different back channel categories and/or one or several open-class lexical items, e.g. yeah I see, mm hm (.) right.

In order to treat the data in a consistent manner, I adopted Tottie’s (1990:11) principle of regarding one or several back channel items as one back channel if they were adjacent in time (even if they appeared in different tone units). So, for example, the instructor’s “yeah (.) uh huh” in line 147 of extract (1) would be classified as a complex back channel made up of the two back channel items, “yeah” and “uh huh” as they are adjacent in time, being separated only by a micropause. In addition, complex back channels were classified as instances of their most frequently occurring back channel item. Thus, the back channel in line 147 was classified as an instance of yeah on the basis that yeah is a more frequently occurring item for male instructors than uh huh (see Table 1).

(1) MI03/MT13 [T=Male Instructor; J=More Able Male Trainee]

146   J: like explore

147 → T: yeah (.) uh huh (…) yeah very good yeah (.) that’s

148      what I like doing yeah

In contrast, one or several back channel items were regarded as separate back channels if they were separated by several words or by a pause of more than one second duration. An example appears in extract (2) in which the first item, “mm” in line 173 is classified as a separate back channel from the second item, “.hh ee aye” (line 175) because they are separated by a pause of more than one second.

(2) MI03/MT23 [T=Male Instructor; D=Less Able Male Trainee]

171   T: they’ll probably give you a few

172   D: yeah

173 → T: mm

174      (3.4)

175 →    .hh ee aye

176   D: when (they’re) (.) when (they’re going to) finish (the)

177      big work room?

No distinction was made between the forms of items classified as the same back channel item. So, for example, “yeah:”, “yeah” and “y::eah” would all be classified and reported as instances of yeah.

The various forms restatements can take proves problematic for the analyst as their similarity to paraphrases obfuscates the boundary between them. A paraphrase is essentially the rewording of the meaning of the prior talk as in LP’s line 9 utterance in extract (3).

(3) Dyad EN and LP taken from Milroy and Perkins, 1992:33

8   EN and er (2.5) took the mm actually I went through there

9 → LP you went from physio

               [

10  EN         yes ye* no er no went through there

In this instance, the paraphrase provides additional information in the form of the lexical item “physio”: this demonstrates LP’s interpretation of the proform “there” in EN’s immediately prior utterance. In contrast, restatements do not usually reword the prior utterance nor do they generally supply additional lexical information. They may be partial or verbatim repeats of the prior utterance. Restatements, then, are used by an interlocutor to reflect back to his or her conversational partner what has just been said using essentially the same words as the partner used.

Definition of high frequency back channels

I considered a back channel to have occurred with high frequency if the token in question had a frequency of occurrence of more than eight instances. This threshold is arbitrary, the cut-off point of eight occurrences representing an average occurrence of two instances per instructor for the group as a whole.

Results

Instructor and trainee back channels

Table 1 lists all instances of the back channels used by male and female instructors with trainees who are more able and less able at communicating. Table 2 lists all the back channels used by the more able and less able male and female trainees.

Table 1 Back Channels used by Male and Female Instructors.

Back Channel

MALE INSTRUCTORS

TOTAL A

(A)

FEMALE INSTRUCTORS

TOTAL B

(B)

GRAND TOTAL

(A+B)

RANK

MORE ABLE

LESS ABLE

MORE ABLE

LESS ABLE

RESTATEMENT

13

33

46

3

32

35

81

1

MM

4

1

5

29

9

38

43

2

YEAH

13

4

17

2

0

2

19

3

OH

3

0

3

11

4

15

18

4

MM HM

0

0

0

8

9

17

17

5

UH HUH

5

3

8

1

0

1

9

6

YES

1

1

2

5

0

5

7

7

RIGHT

0

1

1

4

1

5

6

8

YOU DO

0

4

4

0

0

0

4

9a

AYE

0

3

3

1

0

1

4

9b

((LAUGHS))

2

0

2

1

0

1

3

10a

ARE YA?

2

0

2

1

0

1

3

10b

I SEE

0

0

0

1

1

2

2

11a

VERY GOOD

0

0

0

1

1

2

2

11b

THAT’S GOOD

0

1

1

0

1

1

2

11c

GOOD

1

0

1

0

1

1

2

11d

HAVE YA?

0

1

1

1

0

1

2

11e

THAT’S NICE

0

1

1

0

1

1

2

11f

EH

0

0

0

0

1

1

1

12a

OKAY

0

0

0

1

0

1

1

12b

GREAT

0

1

1

0

0

0

1

12c

AHA

0

1

1

0

0

0

1

12d

NO

0

1

1

0

0

0

1

12e

IS IT

1

0

1

0

0

0

1

12f

IS SHE

1

0

1

0

0

0

1

12g

YOU DON’T

1

0

1

0

0

0

1

12h

YOU HAVE

1

0

1

0

0

0

1

12i

HUH

1

0

1

0

0

0

1

12j

THAT’S ALRIGHT

0

1

1

0

0

0

1

12k

AH

0

0

0

1

0

1

1

12l

ALRIGHT

0

0

0

1

0

1

1

12m

DID YA?

0

0

0

1

0

1

1

12n

Sentence completion

0

1

1

0

0

0

1

12o

[TOTALS]

49

58

107

73

61

134

241

 

Table 2 Back Channels used by Male and Female Trainees.

Back Channel

MALE TRAINEES

TOTAL A

(A)

FEMALE TRAINEES

TOTAL B

(B)

GRAND TOTAL

(A+B)

RANK

MORE ABLE

LESS ABLE

MORE ABLE

LESS ABLE

YEAH

46

16

62

3

19

22

84

1

MM

6

3

9

1

17

18

27

2

RESTATEMENT

1

5

6

0

2

2

8

3

OH

0

3

3

3

0

3

6

4

NO

1

0

1

3

1

4

5

5

Sentence completion

0

1

1

1

0

1

2

6a

((LAUGHS))

1

0

1

0

1

1

2

6b

UH HUH

1

0

1

0

0

0

1

7a

YES

0

1

1

0

0

0

1

7b

OKAY

0

0

0

1

0

1

1

7c

(RIGHT)

0

0

0

0

1

1

1

7d

[TOTALS]

55

30

85

12

41

53

138

From a comparison of the two tables it is apparent that instructors used 73% more back channels than trainees (241 and 138 instances respectively). Female instructors used more back channels (134) than male instructors (107). However, male trainees used more back channels (85) than female trainees (53). Of the three types of back channels under consideration, readily identified verbalized signals represented by far the largest class: 65.98% (159) of all instructors’ back channels and 92.75% (128) of all trainees’ back channels are accounted for by such verbalized signals. Brief restatements represented the second largest class of back channels used by both instructors and trainees. Instructors, however, used a proportionately larger number of brief restatements than did trainees: 33.61% (81) and 5.80% (8) respectively. The use of sentence completion as a back channel was rare, with only one instance for instructors and just two instances for trainees.

In addition, of the 159 readily identified verbalized signals used by instructors, 146 were coded as single back channels and the remainder coded as complex. A similar pattern is apparent in trainees’ use of verbalized signals: of the total of 128 all but two were single back channels. Neither instructors nor trainees used double back channels at any time.

As well as using a larger number of back channels overall, instructors also used three times as many different types of back channels than trainees: instructors using 33 different types and trainees using just 11 different types.

Of the 33 different types of back channel used by instructors, however, 27 occurred at frequencies of less than or equal to eight, i.e. below the threshold for inclusion as a high frequency back channel. Fifteen back channels occurred only once, six occurred just twice each, two occurred three times each, a further two back channels each occurred four times, one occurred six times and another one occurred just seven times. These 27 low frequency back channels therefore account for 54 occurrences out of the total of 241 occurrences for all instructors (22.40%). Thus, the majority of all instructors’ back channels (77.60%) are accounted for by only six different types of high frequency back channels: restatement, mm, yeah, oh, mm hm and uh huh.

An examination of Table 2 reveals that, as with the instructors, the majority of different types of trainees’ back channels are used with low frequency. Of the 11 different types of back channel used, nine types occurred with a frequency of less than or equal to eight. These account for 27 instances out of the total of 138 used by all trainees. This represents 19.57% of all back channels used by trainees: a figure very close to the 22.40% of low frequency back channels used by instructors. Thus, the remaining 80.43% of trainees’ back channels are accounted for by just two high frequency back channels, yeah and mm.

The total number of different types of back channels used by male and female instructors (see columns A and B of Table 1) is nearly equal: 23 types used by male instructors and 22 types used by female instructors. Male and female trainees each used an equal, although smaller, number of nine different types of back channel when conversing with instructors (see columns A and B of Table 2).

Male instructors actually used 14 types of back channel in discourse with more able trainees and 14 types with less able trainees. In contrast, female instructors used more back channel types in talk with more able trainees (18) than with less able trainees (11). More able and less able male and female trainees, however, each used an equal number of six different types of back channel with instructors.

Instructor high frequency back channels

The information in Table 3 is derived from Table 1 and is so constructed as to show instances of major types of high frequency back channels used by male and female instructors. It is evident that male instructors use only two back channels with high frequency: restatement and yeah. Female instructors, however, use twice as many back channels with high frequency: mm, restatement, mm hm and oh. It is apparent that restatement is a strategy employed with high frequency by both male and female instructors. It is the most frequently used back channel by male instructors (a total of 46 instances, representing 42.99% of all the 107 back channels used by male instructors) and it is ranked second for female instructors (35 instances representing 26.12% of the 134 back channels used by female instructors).

There is, in fact, strong evidence for a significant difference between male and female instructors in their use of restatements. A χ2 value of 7.589 (p=0.01) indicates significance at the 1% level (Endnote 2). Thus, the null hypothesis is rejected and we can assert that male instructors use restatements more than female instructors and that this difference is significant.

Table 3 High Frequency Back Channels used by Instructors.

Back Channel

MORE ABLE

LESS ABLE

TOTAL No.

(A+B)

% of total Back Channels used

No. (A)

%

No. (B)

%

Male Instructors (total no. of back channels used = 107)

RESTATEMENT

13

28.26

33

71.74

46

42.99

YEAH

13

76.47

4

23.53

17

15.89

Female Instructors (total no. of back channels used = 134)

MM

29

76.32

9

23.68

38

28.36

RESTATEMENT

3

8.57

32

91.43

35

26.12

MM HM

8

47.06

9

52.94

17

12.69

OH

11

73.33

4

26.67

15

11.20

Considering instructor gender and trainee ability levels, the data suggest a difference between the use of restatements with more able trainees and its use with less able trainees. This difference is significant for both male and female instructors. For males, χ2 = 9.993 which is significant at the 1% level (p=0.01). For females, corrected χ2 = 37.790 (p=0.001) (Endnote 3). This is significant at the 0.1% level and is, therefore, highly significant. There is, therefore, overwhelming evidence that the null hypothesis should be rejected and that both male and female instructors use restatements predominantly with less able communicators. In fact, 71.74% (33) of all restatements used by male instructors and 91.43% (32) of all restatements used by female instructors are used with less able trainees.

With the exception of restatements, Table 3 reveals clear gender differences in the use of high frequency back channels by instructors. Yeah is used exclusively by males and mm, mm hm and oh are used exclusively by females.

The use of yeah is the second ranked and remaining high frequency back channel used by male instructors. There are 17 occurrences, which represent 15.89% of all the 107 back channels used by them. In contrast with restatements, however, yeah appears more likely to be used with more able trainees than less able trainees. The sample suggests that yeah is just over three times as likely to be used with more able trainees than less able trainees (13 and four instances respectively). However, to check the reliability of this difference, a test of statistical significance is required. A corrected χ2 value of 6.263 indicates significance at least at the 5% level (p=0.02) and provides strong evidence for rejecting the null hypothesis and asserting that the two variables are associated, i.e. it is significantly more likely that yeah will be used with more able trainees than with less able trainees.

For female instructors, mm is the top ranked back channel with 38 instances, which represent 28.36% of the total 134 back channels used by them. Interestingly, this figure is extremely close to that for the occurrence of the second ranked back channel for female instructors, the restatement. Thus, for female instructors, mm and restatements represent 54.48% (73) of all back channels used. For male instructors, however, 42.99% (46) of all back channels used is accounted for by restatements alone. Female instructors appear to be more likely to use mm with more able trainees (76.23%, (29)) than less able trainees (23.68%, (9)): corrected χ2 = 9.008, which is significant at the 1% level (p=0.01).

Mm hm and oh are ranked third and fourth respectively for female instructors, each with similar numbers of occurrence. Mm hm is used almost equally between more able and less able female trainees (8 and 9 instances respectively): a corrected χ2 value of 0.157 (p=0.7) indicates that the null hypothesis should not be rejected, i.e. there is no evidence for an association between trainee ability level and female instructors’ use of mm hm.

There are 11 instances of the use of oh with more able female trainees and four instances with less able female trainees. A corrected χ2 value of 1.641 (p=0.2) indicates that there is no significant difference in the use of oh between more able or less able female trainees.

In summary, male instructors use just two high frequency back channel strategies when conversing with trainees: restatement and yeah. Male instructors use restatements significantly more with less able trainees than with more able trainees. In addition, they are more likely to use yeah with trainees who are more able at communicating than with less able communicators. In contrast, female instructors use four high frequency strategies: mm, restatement, mm hm and oh. Mm is used predominantly with more able trainees and, as with male instructors, restatements are used mainly with less able trainees. There is no evidence to support an association between female trainee ability level and female instructors’ use of either mm hm or oh: the observed differences could easily be due to sampling variation.

Trainee high frequency back channels

Table 4 presents information derived from Table 2 setting out frequencies of major types of high frequency back channels used by more able and less able male and female trainees.

Table 4 High Frequency Back Channels used by Trainees.

Back Channel

MORE ABLE

LESS ABLE

TOTAL No.

(A+B)

% of total Back Channels used

No. (A)

%

No. (B)

%

Male Trainees (total no. of back channels used = 85)

YEAH

46

74.19

16

25.81

62

72.94

MM

6

66.67

3

33.33

9

10.59

Female Trainees (total no. of back channels used = 53)

YEAH

3

13.64

19

86.36

22

41.51

MM

1

5.56

17

94.44

18

33.96

 

There are no gender differences with respect to the number of types of high frequency back channels used by trainees. Both male and female trainees use just the two back channels yeah and mm with high frequency. Yeah is top ranked for both males and females: 62 instances for males (representing 72.94% of the total of 85 back channels used by them) and 22 instances for females (representing 41.51% of the total of 53 back channels used). Mm is ranked second for both, with nine instances for males (10.59% of the total number of back channels used by male trainees) and 18 instances for females (33.96% of the total number of back channels used by female trainees). Consequently, for male trainees the two back channels yeah and mm account for 83.53% (71) of all the back channels used by them. For female trainees, a proportion of 75.47% (40) of all back channels used by them is similarly accounted for by the same two back channels.

The above figures would appear to mirror the instructor gender differences in the use of yeah and mm, i.e. male trainees use yeah, which is preferred by male instructors, proportionately more than female trainees and female trainees use mm, which is preferred by female instructors, proportionately more than do male trainees. The significance of these differences is borne out by the values obtained for χ2. Considering trainee gender and use or non-use of yeah a χ2 value of 13.541 is obtained (p=0.001): this is, therefore, highly significant at the 0.1% level. The null hypothesis is rejected as there is overwhelming evidence to support an association between the variables, i.e. male trainees are more likely to use yeah than female trainees. For the variables of instructor gender and use or non-use of mm a corrected χ2 value of 9.897 indicates significance at the 1% level (p=0.01), i.e. there is strong evidence that female trainees are more likely to use the back channel mm than male trainees.

When one considers the communication ability levels of the trainees the gender differences are not so clear. There is evidence to suggest that more able male trainees are more likely to use yeah than less able male trainees: corrected χ2 = 7.561 (p=0.01). However, there is no evidence for an association between male trainee communication ability level and use or non-use of mm: corrected χ2 = 0.057 (p=0.9). Similarly, there is no evidence for an association between the communication ability level of female trainees and either their use of yeah (corrected χ2 = 0.973 (p=0.1)) or their use of mm (corrected χ2 = 3.186 (p=0.1)).

In summary, male and female trainees use just two high frequency back channels in dyadic conversation with instructors: yeah and mm. Male trainees appear to be more likely to use yeah than female trainees and female trainees appear to be more likely to use mm than male trainees. Yeah is top ranked for both males and females. More able male trainees use yeah significantly more than less able male trainees but there is no evidence for an association between male trainees’ communication ability level and their use of mm. Similarly there is no evidence for an association between the communication ability level of female trainees and their use of either yeah or mm.

Summary and discussion

Overall distribution of back channels

It is evident that instructors are more prolific users of back channels than trainees. In fact, instructors used about 73% more back channels in dyadic conversation than trainees. Some researchers (Fleming, 1989; Perkins, 1993) have interpreted quantitative differences in the overall distribution of such tokens as reflective of relative levels of communicative impairment and an indication of the amount of help provided by a conversational partner. Fleming (1989), who examined conversation between persons with aphasia, suggests that a greater use of minimal responses (see Coates, 1993:109-116) by one interlocutor places the onus of the conversation on the other interlocutor. This is seen as enabling the less able partner to participate fully in the conversation with minimum access to lexical and syntactic resources. One cannot directly apply this reasoning to the current study, however, as it is the communicatively more able instructors who, in fact, use more of this type of token than do the trainees. One difficulty in directly applying Fleming’s rationale is that her definition of ‘minimal response’ does not map directly onto the way in which back channels have been operationalized in the current study. This is also true of Perkins’ (1993) definition of minimal turn which is used to calculate the ratio of minimal turns used by aphasic speakers to the number of minimal turns used by non aphasic speakers as a measure of the extent to which the burden of conversation is shared between the conversational participants. For Perkins, many of the tokens considered to be back channels in the current study would be viewed as having full turn status.

The analytic difficulties associated with the different operationalizations of the notion of minimal response, minimal turn and back channel prevent a simplistic interpretation of the relative distribution of back channels in the current study as evidencing which category of conversational partner, instructor or trainee, is placing the onus of the conversation on the other category (if at all). Interactional ability can only be accurately assessed by considering how the back channels are used and interpreted. If it were shown that the sequentially constrained interactional function of the instructors’ back channels was that they acted as continuers (Schegloff, 1982) then it may be possible to tentatively suggest that instructors were, thereby, affording proportionately more opportunities for trainees to contribute to conversation.

What the findings do show, however, is that differences in the quantity of back channels used by instructors and trainees do exist. Tottie (1990) found differences in the quantity of back channel tokens used in British and American conversation. In the British conversation there were just five tokens per minute compared with 16 per minute in the American conversation. In the current study, instructors used 3.01 back channels per minute on average whereas trainees used 1.72 back channels per minute on average.

Of the three types of back channels under consideration in the current study, the largest class of back channels used by both instructors and trainees is the readily identified verbalized signals. Restatements are ranked second and the use of sentence completions is virtually nil. The vast majority of the readily identified verbalized signals were coded as single back channels and the remainder were coded as complex.

It is apparent that instructors have available to them a larger repertoire of back channel tokens from which to choose. For, as well as using a larger number of back channels, instructors also used more types of back channels than trainees. Schegloff (1982) suggests a link between the availability of a range of tokens to fill the continuer slot and the display of incipient disinterest. He suggests that it is the availability of a range of tokens, and therefore the possibility of varying the composition of these in a stretch of talk, that contributes to one’s perception of the listener’s level of interest. If it were shown that persons with learning disabilities did not substantially vary their back channel tokens across a series this may go some way to explaining why persons with learning disabilities may be perceived as rigid, boring or uninterested (Kernan & Sabsay, 1989:238-241). The answer to this question is beyond the scope of this paper.

When the criterion for inclusion as a high frequency back channel is applied it is apparent that instructors also used more high frequency back channels than trainees. Instructors used five high frequency back channels: restatement, mm, yeah, oh and mm hm. Trainees, however, used just two: yeah and mm.

Back channels and trainee communication ability

Three general observations can be made regarding instructors’ use of back channels. First, both male and female instructors reserve the use of restatements predominantly for talk with less able trainees. Second, the top ranked instructor high frequency back channels (excluding restatements), yeah and mm, are used predominantly with more able trainees. Third, there is no evidence to suggest an association between female trainee communication ability level and female instructors’ use of either mm hm or oh.

With respect to trainees, male trainees are statistically more likely to use yeah than female trainees and female trainees to use mm significantly more than male trainees. In addition, it has been shown that more able male trainees use yeah significantly more than less able male trainees. Also, less able female trainees use mm more than more able female trainees. However, there is neither evidence for an association between male trainees’ communication ability level and their use of mm, nor between female trainees’ communication ability level and their use of yeah.

Gender differences and back channels

One of the most salient findings of the current study is that distinct gender differences in the use of back channels by instructors are apparent. Coates (1993:116) cites several studies which implicate gender as an influencing factor in the use of back channel tokens, with females reportedly producing these tokens more than males. Tottie’s (1990) analysis similarly revealed that female interlocutors generally produced more back channel tokens. In like fashion, the current study has also found that female instructors used more back channels than male instructors.

Gender differences are also apparent when one considers the types of back channel used by instructors. Restatement is the only high frequency back channel used by both male and female instructors. Of the remaining four instructor high frequency back channels, male instructors use only one: yeah. Female instructors, however, use three: mm, mm hm and oh. It would, of course, be instructive to consider whether or not the functions of the various back channels differ. Are the back channels favored by male instructors associated with a different interactional outcome to the back channels favored by female instructors? This issue is, again, beyond the scope of this paper.

When we examine trainee back channel use, however, we do not find that females use these tokens proportionately more than males. In fact, male trainees used more back channels than female trainees. A point worthy of particular note, however, is that the use of the two trainee high frequency back channels mirrors the instructor gender differences. That is to say, (a) male trainees are statistically more likely to use yeah, which is preferred by male instructors, proportionately more than female trainees, and (b) female trainees are more likely to use mm, which is preferred by female instructors, more than male trainees.

One of the weaknesses of the current study is that it is not possible to say whether or not the gender differences as described, e.g. males’ preference for yeah and females’ preference for mm, also exist in conversations between non-impaired same-gender interlocutors. In other words, are the differences fundamental gender differences or are they peculiar to, and distinctive of, the ways in which non-impaired males and females organize interactions with same-gender learning disabled interlocutors? The study is also restricted with respect to the regional impact of language choice and language use, e.g. is it a peculiarity of the north-east of England where the study is set that males would generally favor the use of yeah and females the use of mm? Once more, the current study is not designed to address these questions. However, it would be instructive to extend the study to take account of these issues.

Endnotes

  1. The validity of this dichotomy was established by correlating the scores obtained on a questionnaire which elicited instructors’ judgments about the communication skills of the trainee subjects with an independent measure of trainee ability using the Communication Assessment Profile for Adults with a Mental Handicap (CASP) (Van der Gaag, 1988) (see Williamson, 1995).

  2. All Chi Square (χ2) Test results quoted in this paper are derived from cross-classified data in two-by-two tables and the degree of freedom in each case is, therefore, equal to one, i.e. (df=1).

  3. If there are fewer than ten observations in any one cell of a two-by-two table then the χ2 value is adjusted by applying Yate’s Correction for Continuity. This is reported as the corrected χ2 value.

References

BROWN, G. and YULE, G. (1983). Discourse analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

CLARK, H.H. & SCHAEFER, E.F. (1989). Contributing to discourse. Cognitive Science 13, 259-294.

COATES, J. (1993) (2nd edn). Women, men and language. London: Longman.

DITTMAN, A.T. & LLEWELLYN, L.G. (1968). Relationship between vocalizations and head nods as listener responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 9, 79-84.

DUNCAN, S. (1973). Toward a grammar for dyadic conversation. Semiotica 9, 29-46.

DUNCAN, S. (1974). On the structure of speaker-auditor interaction during speaking turns. Language in Society 2, 161-180.

DUNCAN, S. & FISKE, D.W. (1977). Face-to-face interaction: research, methods and theory. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

DUNCAN, S. & NIEDEREHE, G. (1974). On signaling that it’s your turn to speak. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 10, 234-347.

FISHMAN, P.M. (1978). Interaction: the work women do. Social Problems 25, 397-406.

FLEMING, C. (1989). An analysis of the communication strategies employed by aphasics when conversing with other aphasics. Unpublished undergraduate dissertation; University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

FRIES, C.C. (1952). The structure of English London: Longmans, Green and Company.

KENDON, A. (1967). Some functions of gaze direction in social interaction. Acta Psychologica 26, 22-63.

KERNAN, K.T. & SABSAY, S. (1982). Semantic deficiencies in the narratives of mildly retarded speakers. Semiotica 42, 169-193.

KERNAN, K.T. & SABSAY, S. (1984). Getting there: directions given by mildly retarded and nonretarded adults. In R.B. Edgerton (Ed.), Lives in process: mildly retarded adults in a large city. Washington, DC: American Association on Mental Deficiency.

KERNAN, K.T. & SABSAY, S. (1989). Communication in social interactions: aspects of an ethnography of communication of mildly mentally handicapped adults. In M. Beveridge, G. Conti-Ramsden & I. Leudar (Eds.), The language and communication of mentally handicapped people. London: Chapman-Hall.

LOCASTRO, V. (1987). Aizuchi: a Japanese conversational routine. In L.E. Smith (Ed.), Discourse across cultures. New York: Prentice Hall.

MILROY, L. & PERKINS, L. (1992). Repair strategies in aphasic discourse; towards a collaborative model. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics 6, 1 & 2, 27-40.

McLAUGHLIN, M.L. (1984). Conversation: how talk is organized. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications.

NORDENSTAM, K. (1987). Cited in Tottie, G. (1990), Conversational style in British and American English: the case of backchannels. Mimeo, Department of English, University of Uppsala. p4.

ORESTRÖM, B. (1977). Supports in English. Lund, Sweden: Gleerup.

ORESTRÖM, B. (1983). Turn-taking in English conversation. Lund, Sweden: Gleerup.

PERKINS, L. (1993). The impact of cognitive neuropsychological impairments on conversational ability in aphasia. Unpublished PhD thesis; University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

PRICE-WILLIAMS, D. & SABSAY, S. (1979). Communicative competence among severely retarded persons. Semiotica 26: 35-63.

SCHEGLOFF, E.A. (1982). Discourse as an interactional achievement: some uses of ‘uh huh’ and other things that come between sentences. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Analysing discourse: text and talk. Georgetown University Round Table on Language and Linguistics. Georgetown: Georgetown University Press.

SVARTVIK, J. (1980). Well in conversation. In S. Greenbaum, G. Leech & J. Svartvik (Eds.), Studies in English linguistics for Randolph Quirk. New York: Longman.

TOTTIE, G. (1990). Conversational style in British and American English: the case of backchannels. Mimeo, Department of English, University of Uppsala.

VAN DER GAAG, A.D. (1988). The communication assessment profile for adults with a mental handicap (CASP). London: Speech Profiles.

WHITE, S. (1989). Back channels across cultures: a study of Americans and Japanese. Language in Society 18, 59-76.

WILLIAMSON, G. (1995). Instructor-trainee conversation in an Adult Training Centre for people with learning disabilities: an analysis of the function and distribution of back channel tokens and personal names. Unpublished PhD thesis; University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

YEARLEY, S. & BREWER, J.D. (1989). Stigma and conversational competence: a conversational-analytic study of the mentally handicapped. Human Studies 12, 97-115.

YNGVE, V.H. (1970). On getting a word in edgewise. Papers from the sixth regional meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society 6, 567-578.

Read More>> CA101 Supplementary Articles

Comments

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

By submitting this comment you consent to us processing your personal data in accordance with our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy