When we think about language, we think about words. We think about letters, sounds, sentences. We think about spelling, pronunciation, and grammar. But the truth is, language is much more than that. Because sometimes you can speak without uttering a single word.
I am not sure if you are aware of this, but verbal communication constitutes only a fraction (around 7 per cent, according to Albert Mehrabian’s study) of the overall communication process. Surprised? Well, you shouldn’t be – not without reason do they say that actions speak louder than words.
You may be wondering what “actions” I am talking about here. We tend to believe that when we interact with another person, we exchange ideas solely through conversation. That we convey a certain message by saying or writing what’s on our mind. But let’s think about this for a moment. Do you really have to say “I love you” to show your significant other your affection? Wouldn’t a kiss be just as convincing? Most people will tell you – right off the bat – that actually a kiss is far more convincing than all the “I love you’s” in the world.
That kiss would be an example of non-verbal communication – a set of behaviours and cues we send and receive every single time we make contact with another human being. And just as language can be broken into various domains (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics), there are also different types of non-verbal communication.
The most widely-known is probably kinesics. It comprises posture, facial expressions, gestures, and body movements. We usually call it – and rightfully so – body language. Much less familiar are oculesics, which is the study of eye contact; haptics, which concerns the role of touch; and proxemics, which relates to distance and personal space.
When we take up a foreign language, we focus solely on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, thinking that this will help us communicate with the locals. And we’re half right. Verbal communication indeed lets us express our thoughts in a clear, concise manner. However, our fluent French, Arabic, Marshallese, or Tongan doesn’t guarantee full success.
The silent language – to which we never pay any attention when learning a foreign tongue – has un unbelievable power. It can reinforce, complement, confirm, negate, or entirely replace the spoken word. And if that wasn’t enough, it has been proved that people rely on non-verbal cues more than verbal ones.
I know what you are thinking right now. In all likelihood you see no problem whatsoever in non-verbal communication being of such great import. Quite the contrary. Most of us think that’s absolutely fantastic, because, well, nodding our heads to say “yes” is much easier than actually learning a language, isn’t it?
But what if you nod your head and your interlocutor will interpret the gesture as a “no”? Believe it or not, this may happen in certain parts of the world. Because body language, just like verbal communication, differs across cultures.
So does this mean that if we want to be proficient in a chosen lingo, we have to learn the non-verbal signs as well? As daunting as this sounds, the answer is “yes” (I’m nodding my head now to reinforce my words). Our behaviour is no less significant than what we are saying, and – unfortunately – the lack of proper knowledge can lead to some serious misunderstandings. Not only do people around the globe use and read gestures in a different way, but they also have different perceptions regarding physical space, eye contact, and touching. Putting it simply, what’s acceptable in one culture may be unacceptable in another.
Not being aware of those differences can result in both sending the wrong message and having troubles decoding the received information, even if a person speaks the tongue of his or her interlocutor. It may seem quite funny, but it is true. Non-verbal communication plays a tremendous role in the communication process, and language learners shouldn’t – mustn’t – forget about that. Body language goes hand in hand with words. If you neglect it, you can have perfect grammar and make no sense at all. It’s like sending someone a text message that says: “I’m so happy for you!” and putting a sad face emoji at the end.