I once read that learning about investing from books is like learning about sex from romance novels. I know nothing about investing, but I can paraphrase this quote and tell you that learning about body language from a textbook is like learning about sex from romance novels – you think you’re prepared, but really you’re not.
I’ll be honest here, I have never paid much attention to non-verbal communication when learning a language. And I’m a person who’s well aware of its existence – I wrote my master’s thesis on cross-cultural communication, in which non-verbal behaviours play a significant role. But somehow it has never occurred to me that this is something I should get familiar with to be fluent in a foreign tongue. Not once in my life have I heard from my teachers or read in my coursebooks that gestures, posture, facial expressions, eye contact are important for a language learner. The first textbook I’ve come across which mentions this still neglected issue is Peter Rudiak-Gould’s “Practical Marshallese”.
Now, because I aim for proficiency in Kajin Ṃajeḷ (yes, I know – there’s probably little chance I will ever be fluent; but still, a girl can dream, right?), I’ve thought it would be good for me to get acquainted with some common Marshallese gestures. This is how the author describes them:
“Yes” – eyebrows raised, head may be tilted slightly up (not a nod of the head like in English).
Ok, I am able to visualize this. Easy, although completely different from my culture, where raised eyebrows usually mean that you are surprised.
“No” – frown, lips sticking out a bit, sometimes a slight shake of the head (not just a shake of the head like in English).
Hmm… Well… Ok… No, I can’t form a picture in my head. Not yet, at least.
“I don’t know” – sides of the mouth pulled out and back to form a grimace (not a shrug of the shoulders like in English).
Pulled out and back… I’m not sure I quite get it. Is it a grimace grimace?
“Come here” – one hand extended forward with the palm down, then brought down and towards the body quickly (not one hand held out palm up, and fingers drawn towards the body, like in English).
This one I know! I mean, I’ve heard of it a few times. And I’ve also heard that the beckoning gesture which involves putting your palm up is a big no-no in the Marshall Islands, just as it is in some other countries.
“It was this big” – right hand is held up, then the side of the left hand is put somewhere along the right hand or arm to indicate how big or long something is, measured from the tip of the right hand fingers to wherever the left hand is (not both hands held up in front of the body, with the distance between them indicating the size, like in English).
This is actually a very common and popular way of indicating size in a lot of places around the world, so no surprises here.
I’ve read the descriptions, I’ve even memorized them, but of course I still have no idea about non-verbal communication in the Marshall Islands. You can master the vocabulary, spelling, and grammar, sure; but there are things you will never understand or get right until you are in the country the language of which you are trying to learn. Because having knowledge is one thing, putting it into action is another.
This is not to say I think non-verbal communication shouldn’t be covered in textbooks. Quite the contrary. I do believe it is necessary for students to be aware of the differences (as well as similarities) if they want to achieve communicative competence. I would love to get more information on Marshallese body language (Koṃṃooltata Peter Rudiak-Gould for having broached the topic!), and actually I’ve already done some research. But, let’s be real, I won’t be an expert. And you won’t be experts. None of us will be just because we have read somewhere what gestures people use in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tonga, French Polynesia, or any other country.
You may read a million romance novels – if you’ve never had sex, you’re still a virgin.