Verbal communication brings out a lot of colour in a language, way beyond the confines of the materials upon which the language is recorded in. Everyday expressions, slang terms, and other kinds of word variants can be picked up through speaking and listening in a conversational context. Very often, when listening to Japanese conversations, or participating on such conversations yourself, you may find your sentences being interjected by words or phrases said by the listener. Perhaps in your native languages, these interjections may be perceived as full comprehension of what the speaker has said, or expressing agreement to what the speaker has said, or other things like that. However, in Japanese, these interjections are not just normal, but also let the speaker know the listener is paying attention. These phrases are called aidzuchi (相槌/ あいづち).
While having its own term, aidzuchi-like interjections are also seen in other languages. Taking English as an example, we see interjections being used, but does not convey any meaningful information, other than signifying the listener’s attention, understanding, or agreement with the speaker. Such words, or interjections, are called “phatic expressions”, and the use of these words in conversations like these is called “backchanneling”. As an example, here is an English conversation showing some backchanneling:
- A – Didja hear that C won the lottery?
- B – No way!
- A – I know right, that guy has never been so lucky.
- B – Yeah, I know right.
- A – I wish I could win the lottery too.
There have been some linguistic studies detailing an “unspoken rule” (pun intended?) in when to backchannel. Too short, and you may come off as rude; too long, and the conversation sort of takes an awkward turn. Another aspect of academic interest is why backchanneling occurs. Some propose that the role of the listener is mainly to receive information conveyed by the speaker, and that the listener’s responses could shape or influence the content of the speaker.
So, what differences are there between backchanneling and aidzuchi? In addition to showing attention to the speaker, aidzuchi can also be used as so-called “echo questions”, as a means to clarify, or confirm a certain detail a speaker has mentioned. Below is a probable example of a Japanese conversation:
- A – 新しい車を買ったんです (atarashii kuruma wo kattandesu)
- [I want to buy a new car]
- B – 車ですか (kuruma desuka)
- [A car?]
The phrases in aidzuchi are generally short utterances much like what you see in English and other languages, although a meaningful translation may not really be ascertained. However, as with many languages with backchanneling, the interjections you use can also influence how a conversation goes. Use the wrong one, and you might have an awkward moment. The most common aidzuchi words and phrases you might encounter in Japanese are:
- そうですか/そうか (soudesuka / souka) – Really?
- そうですね/そうね (soudesune / soune) – I see
- なるほど (naruhodo) – Right, I see
- 本当/マジ/本真 (hontou / maji / honma) – Really? Note: honma is a more Kansai expression
- はい/ええ/うん (hai / ee / un) – Yes / yeah
- へえ (hee) – Expressing intrigue, surprise
Sometimes, you would notice body language being used in aidzuchi as well. Probably the most common one you would observe is nodding, normally interpreted by some non-native speakers as showing agreement, although its intended “function” is to show the speaker that you are listening, or paying attention. Perhaps cultural differences in the communication of certain body language can cause misunderstandings in cases like these.
So far, we have probably only scraped the surface of what backchanneling and aidzuchi are, with many psychological, sociological, and linguistic features waiting to be covered and read up on. We might cover a bit more on the inner workings of aidzuchi in a future post, but for now, this is a basic introduction to a very common conversational feature in Japanese.