NVC: Nonverbal Communication

(with Dilek Eryılmaz)

Non-verbal communication (body language, paralinguistics) has been a focus of attention for some time in areas such as the refinement of presentation skills, developing social skills, and even as as a realistic alternative to the lie-detector test. Relatively little attention, however, has been given in language teaching to non-verbal communication as a complement to spoken language, though recent trends in neuro linguistic programming regarding mirroring and parallel body language have filtered into current research and practice.

Components of non-verbal communication

Since it is said that as little as ten percent of communication takes place verbally, and that facial expressions, gestures and posture form part of our culture and language, it seems reasonable that we should at least raise learners' awareness of non-verbal communication in order to improve their use of natural language, increase confidence and fluency and help to avoid inter-cultural misunderstandings.

On the grounds that; 'It's not what you say, it's the way that you say it', there is much to be said for teaching non-verbal communication either parallel to, or integrated with, a language and skills based syllabus, in the same way that phonology is often treated.

Non-verbal communication is a system consisting of a range of features often used together to aid expression. The combination of these features is often a subconscious choice made by native speakers or even sub-groups/sub-cultures within a language group. The main components of the system are:

Of the above, body language (particularly facial expressions and gestures), eye contact, proximity and posture are probably those which learners most need to be aware of in terms of conveying meaning, avoiding misunderstandings and fitting in with the target culture.

In terms of skills development, non-verbal clues should not be underestimated when developing both the listening and speaking skills. Like grammatical structures, non-verbal communication has form, function and meaning, all of which may vary from language to language.

Teaching non-verbal communication

Relatively few techniques have been suggested for teaching non-verbal communication, but some suggestions are:

A Non-verbal communication lesson

Below I've described a sixty-minute lesson which was delivered by a trainee teacher on a recent course at the Izmir University of Economics in Turkey. The lesson was planned by the trainee, with advice and some materials provided by the course tutor. Her aims were to raise learners' awareness of non-verbal communication, to present a variety of non-verbal cues and to give the learners the opportunity to practise and produce some of these cues, as well as to develop and integrate all four skills. The class comprised adult students at good intermediate level.

The lesson consisted of six stages


On reflection, this may have been an overambitious lesson, attempting to take students from an introduction to a concept with which they were unfamiliar to a full-blown production stage.

Although the learners found the first three stages of the lesson both interesting and entertaining, they found the practice activities progressively more difficult, though this may have been due to the selection of materials. However, such immersion in the topic may be the only way to fully expose intermediate students to a totally unfamiliar area.

There are a number of lessons to be learnt from the experience:

Further reading

Darn S. Aspects of Non-verbal Communication. Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 2, February 2005
Darn S, Ledbury R, White I. The Importance of Eye Contact in the Classroom. Internet TESL Journal, Vol. X, No. 8, August 2004
Feldman R. S.& Rime (Eds.) Fundamentals of Non-verbal Behavior. CUP
Givens D. B The Non-verbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs and Body Language Cues.http://members.aol.com/nonverbal2/diction1.htm
Field J. Skills and Strategies: Towards a new Methodology for Listening. ELT Journal Vol. 52/2
Nolasco R. & Arthur L. Conversation (Activity 37). OUP (Good source of cartoons for gestures).

This article first published 06 September 2005                                                   http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/non-verbal-communication