Nonverbal Communication

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:

  • Kinesics (body language) Body motions such as shrugs, foot tapping, drumming fingers, eye movements such as winking, facial expressions, and gestures
  • Proxemics (proximity) Use of space to signal privacy or attraction
  • Haptics Touch
  • Oculesics Eye contact
  • Chronemics Use of time, waiting, pausing
  • Olfactics Smell
  • Vocalics Tone of voice, timbre, volume, speed
  • Sound symbols Grunting, mmm, er, ah, uh-huh, mumbling
  • Silence Pausing, waiting, secrecy
  • Posture Position of the body, stance
  • Adornment Clothing, jewellery, hairstyle
  • Locomotion Walking, running, staggering, limping

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:

  • Learners discuss the meaning of gestures and expressions (either demonstrated by the teacher, from pictures, or from existing published materials. This is particularly effective with multilingual classes
  • Learners mime adjectives of both physical and emotional feelings
  • Learners watch a video clip without sound, discuss body language, relationships, emotions and feelings, then write the dialogue
  • Learners act out a dialogue using gesture and expression only
  • Learners make up a dialogue based on mime
  • Learners, in pairs, take turns in listening to each other for 30 seconds, using only non-verbal responses.

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

  • A running dictation using a short text about non-verbal communication, the instructions for which were given without speaking by gesture and mime.
  • A brief brainstorming activity to elicit and teach key terms.
  • Focus on gestures through cartoon pictures of different hand or facial gestures. Students were asked to discuss the meanings in their own culture, were shown a variety of other meanings in other cultures, and were invited to contribute other examples.
  • Practice using a scripted dialogue. Pairs of students rehearsed parts, then acted out the dialogue using expressions, gestures and posture.
  • Students built dialogues based on silent viewing of a short video clip.
  • Students combined verbal and non-verbal communication in the context of a short extract from a play.


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:

  • Non-verbal communication needs to be taught in small chunks in appropriate situations where the situational or thematic context lends itself to the language.
  • Time needs to be devoted to confidence-building, creativity and other drama-based activities which help learners to produce natural language and to use expressions and gestures to reinforce meaning.
  • Non-verbal communication, like phonology, should be taught from beginner level. Crash courses in natural language production are unlikely to work. An awareness-raising approach is appropriate.
  • Gesture and expression, in particular, add an extra dimension to language, and certainly add to the cultural component that verbal communication carries. An awareness of non-verbal cues also helps to avoid some of the misunderstandings which are the inevitable but annoying consequence of cultural interpretation of meaning.

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.
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


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