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# Backchannels

Backchannels occur in conversation when a speaker is talking and a listener interjects. These responses are called backchannel responses and can be verbal, non-verbal, or both.

Backchannel responses usually don't convey important information. They are primarily used to signify the listener's interest, understanding, or agreement with what the speaker is saying.

## What are Backchannels?

Backchannels are familiar expressions that we use on a daily basis, such as 'yeah', 'uh-huh', and 'right'.

The linguistic term backchannel was coined by the American Linguistics professor Victor H. Yngve in 1970.

Fig. 1 - 'Yeah' can be used as a backchannel in a conversation.

## What are backchannels used for?

Backchannels are crucial to conversations because in order for a conversation to be meaningful and productive, the participants need to interact with one another. During a conversation between two or more people, at any given moment one of them is speaking while the other (s) are listening. However, the listener(s) have to show that they are following what is being said by the speaker. This allows the speaker to understand whether the listener is following the conversation or not, and to feel heard. The way to do that is through the use of backchannel responses.

The term backchannel itself hints that there is more than one channel operating during a conversation. Actually, there are two channels of communication - the primary channel and the secondary channel; this is the backchannel. The primary channel of communication is the speech of the person speaking at any given moment, and the secondary channel of communication is the actions of the listener.

The backchannel provides 'continuers', such as 'mm hmm', 'uh huh' and 'yes'. These reveal the listener's interest and understanding. Therefore, the primary and the secondary channel define the different roles of the participants in the conversation - the speaker uses the primary channel while the listener uses the backchannel.

## What are the three types of backchannel?

Backchannels are categorized into three types:

1. Non-lexical backchannels
2. Phrasal backchannels
3. Substantive backchannels

### Non-lexical backchannels

A non-lexical backchannel is a vocalised sound that usually doesn't contain any meaning - it only verbally reveals that the listener is paying attention. In many cases, the sound is accompanied by gestures.

uh huh

mm hm

Non-lexical backchannels can be used to express interest, agreement, surprise, or confusion. Because they are short, the listener can interject the conversation while the current speaker is having a turn, without causing any disruption ('uh huh' for example).

The repetition of syllables within a non-lexical back channel, such as in 'mm-hm', is a common occurrence. Additionally, a non-lexical backchannel can consist of a single syllable, like 'mm', for example.

### Phrasal backchannels

A phrasal backchannel is a way for the listener to show their engagement with what the speaker is saying through the use of simple words and short phrases.

Yeah

yes

really?

wow

Similar to non-lexical backchannels, phrasal backchannels can express different things, from surprise to support. They are usually a direct response to a previous utterance.

Consider this example:

A: My new dress is gorgeous! It has lace and ribbons.

B: Wow!

Here, the phrasal backchannel ('wow') shows amazement and is a direct response to A's (the speaker's) description of the dress.

Additionally, like non-lexical backchannels, phrasal backchannels are also short enough so that, when using them, the listener doesn't spoil the flow of the conversation.

### Substantive backchannels

A substantive backchannel occurs when the listener engages in more substantive turn-taking - in other words, they interject quite often. This usually happens when the listener needs the speaker to repeat something, or when they need clarification or explanation about what is being said by the speaker.

oh come on

are you serious?

no way!

Similar to phrasal backchannels, substantive backchannels also require a specific context - they are ways in which the listener directly reacts to the speaker:

A: And then he cut all of his hair right in front of me. Just like that!

B: Are you serious?

B (the listener) uses a substantive backchannel to show their surprise.

Substantive backchannels usually only address certain parts of the conversation rather than the conversation as a whole. Consequently, they can occur in different parts of the conversation - beginning, middle or end.

## Generic backchannels vs Specific backchannels

The three types of backchannels - Non-lexical, Phrasal and Substantial - are further categorized into two uses. Some backchannel responses are more generic, while others depend on a specific context.

### Generic backchannels

Generic backchannels are responses that we use in day-to-day conversation. Non-lexical backchannels such as 'mm-hmm' and 'uh huh' are generic backchannels that the listener uses as a way of showing they agree with the speaker, or to indicate that they are paying attention.

Let's take a look at an example:

A: So I went there...

B: Uh huh.

A: And I told him that I want to buy the book...

B: Mmmm.

After B (the listener) interjects, A (the speaker) continues with their turn and provides new information.

### Specific backchannels

Specific backchannels are used to emphasise the listener's reactions to what the speaker is saying. Phrasal backchannels and substantive backchannels such as 'wow', 'yeah' and 'oh come on!' are specific backchannels because their use depends on the specific circumstances of the conversation. When the listener uses a specific backchannel, the speaker doesn't simply continue by adding new information, they reply to the listener's response instead.

Consider this example:

A: I said to him, 'I'll buy this book if it's the last thing I do!'

B: Really? You said that?

A: You bet I did! I told him, '' Sir, I ask you again - can I buy this book? ''

B: And what did he say?

A: What do you think? He agreed to sell it to me, of course!

The highlighted text shows the substantive backchannels that B (the listener) uses. All of them are specific to the context of this particular conversation. What A (the speaker) says after B (the listener) uses backchannels depends on what the backchannel responses are. Thus, the speaker provides additional information specific to the listener's response.

## Backchannels - key takeaways

• Backchannels occur in conversation when a speaker is talking and a listener interjects.
• Backchannels are primarily used to signify the listener's interest, understanding, or agreement with what the speaker is saying.
• There are two channels of communication - the primary channel and the secondary channel, also known as the backchannel. The speaker uses the primary channel while the listener uses the backchannel.
• There are three types of backchannels - Non-lexical backchannels (uh huh), Phrasal backchannels (yeah), and Substantive backchannels (oh come on!)
• Backchannels can be generic or specific. Generic backchannels are used to convey that the listener is paying attention. Specific backchannels are a way for the listener to actively engage in the conversation by reacting to what is being said.

Backchannels, or backchannel responses, occur in a conversation when a speaker is talking and a listener interjects. Backchannels are primarily used to signify the listener's interest, understanding, or agreement.

Backchannels are familiar expressions that we use on a daily basis, such as "yeah", "uh-huh", and "right".

The three types of backchannels are Non-lexical backchannels, Phrasal backchannels and Substantive backchannels.

Backchannels are an important part of conversation because they allow a conversation to be meaningful and productive. During a conversation between two or more people, the listener(s) have to show that they are following what is being said by the speaker.

Backchannels are used to provide 'continuers', such as '' mm hm '', '' uh huh '' and '' yes ''. These reveal the listener's interest and understanding of what the speaker is saying. Backchannels define the different roles of the participants in the conversation - the speaker uses the primary channel while the listener uses the backchannel.

A backchannel discussion, or backchanneling, is not the same as a backchannel response. A backchannel discussion allows students to take part in an online discussion that is a secondary activity during a live event.

## Final Backchannels Quiz

Question

True or False: The listener uses the primary channel of communication.

False

Show question

Question

What type of backchannel is the phrase  no way! ''?

Substantive backchannel

Show question

Question

Which of these is NOT an example of a substantive backchannel?

Yeah

Show question

Question

What type of backchannel is the phrase  no way! ''?

Nouns backchannel

Show question

Question

Which phrase is the phrasal backchannel in the following conversation?

A: As you know, I wasn't feeling well.

B: Mmm hm.

A: So it was difficult to go to work.

B: Right.

Right

Show question

Question

What type of backchannel is the phrase '' uh huh ''?

Non-lexical backchannel

Show question

Question

True or False: The backhannel and the secondary channel of communication are one and the same thing.

True

Show question

Question

What type of backchannel is the phrase  wow ''?

Phrasal backchannel

Show question

Question

Is this an example of a generic or a specific backchannel?

A: You know purple is my favourite colour?

B: Mm hm.

A: Well guess what? I bought a purple house!

This is an example of a generic backchannel

Show question

Question

Which of these is an example of a non-lexical backchannel?

Mm

Show question

Question

Is this an example of a generic or a specific backchannel?

A: He was perfectly fine, it was like he had miraculously healed overnight!

B: No way! How?

A: Well I suspect he was never ill to begin with.

This is an example of a specific backchannel.

Show question

Question

What type of backchannel is the phrase '' uh huh''?

Phrasal backchannel

Show question

Question

Which of these is an example of a phrasal backchannel?

Yes

Show question

Question

Which phrase is the substantive backchannel in the following conversation?

A: Okay, don't freak out but today as I was walking here something happened ..

B: Yes?

A: I was attacked.

B: Oh my days!

A: It was nothing serious, as you can see I'm in one piece.

The substantive backchannel in the conversation is  oh my days! ''. .

Show question

Question

Backchannels can only be generic.

True or false?

False

Show question

Question

A non-lexical backchannel is a vocalised sound that usually _____________.

doesn't contain a meaning

Show question

Question

The term backchannel was coined by who?

Victor H. Yngve

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:

in order for a conversation to be meaningful and productive, the participants need to ________ with one another.

interact

Show question

Question

The primary channel of communication is the speech of the person speaking at any given moment.

True or false?

True

Show question

Question

Backchannel is the __________ channel of communication.

secondary

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:

A phrasal backchannel is a way for the listener to show their _________ with what the speaker is saying

engagement

Show question

Question

A phrasal backchannel can be created through the use of simple words and _____ phrases.

short

Show question

Question

Which of the following backchannels is generic?

non-lexical

Show question

Question

Which two backchannels are considered specific?

phrasal and substantive

Show question

Question

A substantive backchannel occurs when the listener _____ interjects.

often

Show question

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