It is said that as little as 7 percent of communication takes place verbally (Mehrabian 1971), and that facial expressions, gestures and posture are huge parts of our culture and communication. It seems advisable that we should at least point out the importance of non-verbal communication in order to improve language teachers’ skills and students’ use of L2. It increases confidence and fluency and helps to avoid misunderstandings.
Communication is an interdisciplinary study
The importance of non-verbal aspects of communication became part of the language teaching as well.
Non-verbal behaviour of a teacher determines the basis of the student’s understanding of the L2 culture. Therefore, the cultural context should be taught and practised in the classroom. Almost all elements of the non-verbal communication are related to culture. This is the reason why teacher training colleges focus on the culture, history and literature of the target language. Most of their courses are one of these subjects.
The listener’s face is also a good detector and a well-trained teacher can interpret those signs.
Aspects of non-verbal communication
It has been categorised in many ways and some of the aspects should be mentioned and even discussed throughout the teacher-trainee years.
- Kinesics (The systematic use of facial expressions, body motions, eye movements and gestures in order to communicate meaning)
- Facial expressions: The human face is a special ‘tool’ for registering emotions, understanding, doubt or agreement, etc.
- Eye contact: Studies have shown that several patterns of behaviour are related to the eye movement, which is usually subconscious and many of us are unaware of this unless we are told about them. For example, ‘eyebrow flashing’ seems to be ‘out of our control’. In a classroom, eye contact is an important way of showing students that we are aware of their presence.
- Gesture: They are usually the emphasis of our uttered message. Some cultures tend to use more gestures; for example, it is often mentioned when it comes to the Italians or to some Arabic countries. It is often said that non-verbal communication can be learnt because there are some universal gestures and expressions such as smiles, laughter etc. But misunderstandings happen and in order to avoid them the teachers must emphasize the significance of cultural differences. Some examples:
Picture taken from http://iteslj.org/Articles/Darn-Nonverbal/ (Access: 2018-11-16)
4. Body posture: It can indicate the relative status quo of the communicator or their attitude during the communication. For instance, an experienced ‘non-verbalist’ can read the signs of interest or boredom.
- Proxemics: Probably the best definition is that proxemics is ‘the study of the physical distance between people when they are talking to each other, as well as their postures and whether or not there is a physical contact during their conversation’ (Richards at al, 1992).
All cultures and societies have their own degree of this proximity and invasion of the private space is always considered to be rudeness. There is a personal distance for closer relationships, a social consultative one for impersonal relationships and a common public distance for public occasion. The figures may vary depending on the given culture.
The gender factor must also be mentioned, since women tend to use touch to signal things like agreement or sympathy, whereas men usually do not touch each other in the same kind of situations.
Non-verbal behaviour in the classroom
A good language teacher usually can be recognised by their use of gesture even in a private conversation.
As teaching is an interpersonal activity, non-verbal signs become very important during the process. The teacher transmits signals to motivate, to encourage and to influence students, and students’ non-verbal signs are feedback as well, for example they can indicate interest or lack of understanding.
The use of eye contact to convey messages is an important non-verbal sign. The eyes are powerful tools for both the teacher and the learner, yet much classroom time is spent with eyes firmly fixed on the book, the board.
What is mostly taught to teachers during their college years is to develop ‘the look’ as part of their discipline technique. It is often forgotten that eye contact also can be used as a correction tool. A well-timed eye-flashing may encourage students to correct themselves immediately. It is time saving for the teacher.
And what is more important, making an eye contact is a sign for communicating: ‘I am here for you and I am aware of that you are here too.’
Cleverly using the proper proximity is also a good technique. Usually the teacher is not too close physically to the students. Making a friendly eye contact while walking slowly to a student will not be interpreted as a threat, rather a polite request of ‘May I help you? I can tell by the look on your face that you do not understand something’. It is most likely that the students will be more opened about admitting that they are lost or they do not understand something.
All in all, using non-verbal communication reduces unnecessary teacher talking time, increases learner participation and confidence, reduces times of silence, livens up classroom atmosphere, improves group and oral activities, encourages self-correction of the students and strengthens their intercultural competence.
1.) Molnár, K. – Martin, B.: Essentials of Applied Linguistics for English language teachers
2.) Darn, S.: Aspects of Nonverbal Communication (Date: 2018-11-16)
3.) Ledbury, R., White, I. and Darn, S.: The Importance of Eye Contact in the Classroom (Date: 2018-11-16)