POSTDOC RESEARCHER IN THE DFG PROJECT “TONE AND INTONATION IN VIETNAMESE” AND THE UOC PROJECT “PROSODY IN CONVERSATIONAL INTERACTION – A STUDY OF VIETNAMESE AND GERMAN DIALOGUES”
Institute of Linguistics, Department of Phonetics, University of Cologne
Speech Prosody and Misunderstandings in Intercultural Communication: A Study of Listener Behavior in Vietnamese and German Task-Oriented Dialogues
The use of prosody has been established to play an important role in speech. The raising or lowering of one’s voice does not serve linguistic functions only (e.g., distinguishing a question from a statement or distinguishing neutral from contrastive information). The prosody of utterances can also convey interpersonal meanings such as whether someone is a polite or interested listener. Across languages and cultures, sentence melody is not always the same. In this talk I will present the prosodic patterns used by Vietnamese and German speakers when they listen in dialogues and focus on those patterns which are different from each other and may thus lead to possible misinterpretations in intercultural conversations.
First, I shall present the analysis of utterances signaling attention or agreement on the part of the listener, such as mhm, ja, or right, so-called backchannels. I will compare two groups of speakers, using 20 map task dialogues recorded by 10 Vietnamese and 10 German female participants, aged 20-33. The results show that whereas Vietnamese backchannels are produced with a level or falling pitch contour, German backchannels are used predominantly with a rising pitch contour. These differences have implications for cross-cultural communication: they may cause different interpretations of interpersonal meanings such as politeness or friendliness when speakers of these two cultures communicate with each other and when different linguistic patterns from the native language are transferred into the second or foreign language.
The potential for misunderstandings in communication between German and Vietnamese speakers can be shown by means of a perception experiment, which I will present in the second part of the talk. Results show that (Northern) Vietnamese listeners associate the low final pitch with a higher degree of politeness and a lower degree of dominance. In a large number of languages, a polite way to provide listener feedback (in German and English for example) is to raise the pitch, whereas in Northern Vietnamese it is the low pitch that is perceived as more polite. In Northern Vietnamese, high pitch seems to be interpreted as conveying emphasis, and it is perceived as having too much energy or being too emphatic, resulting in a higher degree of perceived dominance and, therefore, a lower degree of perceived politeness.
Looking at the listener behavior of these two languages helps us explain potential misunderstandings in conversation that do not appear to reflect only the speaker’s personality or their attitudes, but rather cultural and language backgrounds.