Non-verbal skills: essential but ignored aspects of foreign language communication

Non-verbal skills: essential but ignored aspects of foreign language communication


Can you guess what I’m thinking from looking at my expression in the photo?

When I run into some study-focused learners and the discussion turns to languages, sometimes I honestly feel like we are talking about completely different things. A lot of them like talking about subjunctives, past participles, cases and word roots, conjugations, tone rules and so on. If you are a grammarian or academic then these things can lead to fascinating discussions if you are into that.

However, I find focusing entirely on such details to be unhelpful if you actually want to communicate with natives in your target language.

The way I see it, it’s like Chemistry professors discussing cooking. The Chemist could say NaHCO3 + KHC4H4O6 —-> KNaC4H4O6 + H2O + CO2 and see how great that is, but cooks usually just say that they added Baking soda to Cream of tartar. Chemical formulae are interesting and practical in so many ways (I’d hate to think where would we be today without amazing advances in chemistry!) but actually quite useless to cooks.

Grammar isn’t “useless” to language learners, but devoting nearly all of your energy to it is wasteful if your end-goal is anything but to pass an exam about grammar.

Someone who focuses on grammar will become a grammar expert, and someone who focuses on vocabulary will become a walking dictionary, but if they want to communicate with natives they need to turn their attention to other crucial aspects of communication!

Non verbal skills: Sometimes way more important than the verbal ones

One statistic you may have already heard about that I find useful to illustrate this point is from a UCLA study, suggesting that as much as 93% of communication may be from aspects unconnected to the words we use. This study focused on feelings and attitudes (obviously in other contexts, words convey ideas much better), but that’s a pretty powerful statistic. Only 7% from the actual words you use…

That figure is a little too precise, but in my experience it is quite accurate! I’ve run into a lot of language learners who, on paper, “speak” the language way better than I do. They have gotten As in their exams, they can explain the intricacies of the most complex grammar to you and they know obscure words of the foreign language. And yet they can’t converse with anyone in that language. If the goal is to be able to understand everything in a written text then they’ll likely do better than me, but in real life the cat almost always has their tongue.

What separates such theoretically better learners from actual speakers of the language, is the latter’s focus on communication. Making the mistakes and getting out there and speaking as soon as possible.

As well as that, there are ways they need to communicate that are never covered in grammar books, and at best will be occasional asides in more cultural based language learning courses: How we communicate between the words. As far as I’m concerned this is even more important than the content of the language. You can convey a lot of information in body language, facial expressions, volume and tone of the words you use, use of spacing and precisely what you do between the words, as well as your clothes, behaviour and even when knowing that you shouldn’t say or do something.

Cultural and social aspects are bigger aspects of communication than grammar and vocabulary ever could be.

Interesting example: Italian squillo

I went into great detail into how to become more active in conversations and how to genuinely interact with natives, despite lack of vocabulary etc., using such non-verbal techniques in the Guide. One or two specific suggestions have gotten quite a lot of great responses from people, so I might elaborate much more in later blog posts.

However, one different example I’d like to point out today is the squillo in Italy. This form of communication also exists between certain friends/family members elsewhere and to a certain extent in many other countries, but I’ve personally found its use in Italy to be much broader.

Squillo simply means a “ring” (on the telephone), but is more precisely thought of as a missed call. This missed call can have dozens of meanings, none of which are explained beforehand. In English speaking countries I have heard people say “I’ll give you a missed call when I’m arriving” etc., but its use in Italy and some other places goes way beyond this.

This took me by surprise as I would get so many missed calls (seeing who it was from caller ID) when living in Italy. At first, I thought it was a means of the other person not having to pay and thought it was rather rude of them to expect me to call back just so they could save money, but that wasn’t it. It wasn’t because I would actually “miss” the call, since I would have my mobile on me all the time. There would never be a pre-made agreement (like I’ll give a missed call when I am ready to leave etc.) and yet it’s meaning would always be clear from the context.

A squillo means I’m thinking of you, or Hey, how are you doing? or Sorry, I’m running late or I’m at your door, come down now! or Where the hell are you!? or many many other things. If you agreed to meet someone at 9pm and at 9:10 you get a squillo, it’s pretty clear that it means the third one. If you get a squillo from a girl you’re seeing it can mean the first one. The context is pretty clear. No SMS needs to be sent, no phonecall needs to be made (unless the context indicates they are low on credit, e.g. two squilli in succession), and most of the time you don’t even need to acknowledge it with a return squillo.

No words are written or spoken, and yet a full communicative message is exchanged.

Since the phone call never actually connects, it doesn’t cost you anything. It’s a very clever means of communication. In Spain I’ve heard them say “dame un toque” and in France they request a “bip”, but up to now Italy wins in broadness of applications of the squillo. Foreigners would go as far as to simply use the Italian word when speaking English/French etc. – it just doesn’t translate that well.

As a means of communication, I love it! No amount of grammar studies can get your head around its use – this is understanding the human context of your relationship to the caller and what you are planning that day.

Work much more on the 93% part of communication

You would find yourself more accepted in social circles abroad if you tried to focus more on how locals are acting, rather than only on what they are saying. How are they sitting? How fast do they walk? How loud do they talk? (um, sorry to my American readers, but seriously, you should turn down the volume switch a little when speaking certain languages!! :P )

In some of my language missions, I like to attempt to pass off as a local. It’s pointed out to me very frequently how “impossible” this is because you can never lose your accent. What they fail to realise is that the accent reduction is just a small part of what you need to do to achieve this. Someone with an absolutely perfect accent, intonation, grammar etc. will still be seen as a foreigner 2 seconds into a conversation because of their posture, clothing, tone of voice, lack of native body language, inability to pick up on important social queues etc.

My idea of really studying a language, is to observe and emulate people speaking it. This has ultimately led to me being confused for a local in many occasions, even though a few grammar and pronunciation mistakes might slip through that are seen as too subtle when compared to my more local body language.

This is why this blog talks so much about the social aspect of learning a language. It is essential! I’ll occasionally make some grammar or vocabulary references, but frankly the 93% aspect of communication is way more important. If I can’t express myself as a local would before I even open my mouth, then anything I do say is going to sound even stranger, whether I have lots of mistakes in my words or not.

If I was designing a Brazilian Portuguese course, I’d have a whole section about how much warmer and friendlier you have to be. When people ask me advice for speaking Italian I tell them about how the Italian shrug works, combined with “boh!” long before I talk about conjugations. If you plan on living in France, you should learn how to drink un café like the French do.

All of these are aspects of communication and interaction with locals. Why they aren’t on almost any language courses boggles the mind.

The solution? Stop bloody studying and interact with people in the language! :) Or if you watch a foreign language TV show or movie, pay attention to how they act as well as trying to understand what they are saying.

The best news is that the vast majority of this unspoken communication is actually international! There are always exceptions that need to be learned, but most of the time a grimace, point, touch on the shoulder or warm smile will get you much further in terms of communication than words ever can.


People have already booked 18 language coaching sessions in just one week! Contact me to book today if you are interested too! :)

For those curious, I am studying (grumble) really hard these days to try my best to pass the German C2 exam. All this study is frankly getting in the way of trying to improve my spoken German! I have two weeks to try to see if I can hack the C2 exam a second time despite the tighter timeframe… whether I will or not, I look forward to getting out a lot more after the exam and speaking German, reducing my accent and adapting to German mannerisms as well as I can to attempt to convince them I’m one of them before I leave :)

Am I really that crazy to think that there is more to attempting immersion in a foreign culture than the 7% that most courses seem to be so obsessed with? Let me know in the comments!

Can you guess what I’m thinking from looking at my expression in the photo? When I run into some study-focused learners and the discussion turns to languages, sometimes I honestly feel like we are talking about completely different things. A lot of them like talking about subjunctives, past participles, cases and word roots, conjugations, tone […]


  • WC

    Is there a Murphy's Law about talking about grammar?

    “And yet they have can’t converse with anyone in that language. “

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    lol, well spotted :P I've edited it ;)

  • Silent Observer

    Very insightful post, Benny. I think your astuteness towards social dynamics is just as well developed as your penchant for hacking new languages.

    As someone who habitually been oblivious to social conventions growing up, I'm just starting to get caught up with my peers. If you could go into more detail about how you observe and analyze these things, even if it seem obvious to some, then it would greatly help people like me. Perhaps more real-life examples, the strategies you employ, tricks you have learned over the years..


  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hi S.O.!
    Glad you liked the post ;)
    As I said, I discussed this at length in the Language Hacking Guide. This greater focus on communication rather than grammar/vocab is at the core of my strategy for starting to actually speak quicker and improve quicker. You'd get the most details in the guide.

    Otherwise, as I said lots of people have really enjoyed particular suggestions I gave in there, so I will elaborate them on the blog for sure! However, that might take a while. I'm only writing one post a week until I sit this German exam and I have lots of things I'd like to discuss ;)

    All that info will be shared on the blog eventually though :D

    All the best!

  • Quokka

    My point of view is that a lot of people are poor thinkers. I don't mean they are stupid. It's just that they are satisfied with the first solution which pops up in their head. [thinking]“What are languages made of ? Well … words & grammar. Therefore I should spend my focus on those two.[/thinking done]

    I am still puzzle over why most language courses stress vocabulary & grammar the most. I seriously can't believe they haven't tried to come up with better methods (which isn't rocket science!)

    The only theory I could come up with is that this is a technique which somehow managed to survive the time were there was no internet & cheap plan tickets. But even back then there were better ways to learn…

    It would be interesting to find out whether this is a global phenomena or rather a problem of the western hemisphere. I could imagine that the “rational West” has to put everything into academical concepts because that is what made us so “awesome”. Regardless of whether it is actually possible to do this …

  • PGS

    I just want to point out that, as a linguist, you seem to be generally misinformed as to what linguists study and how they go about it. There ARE syntacticians, and yes they are deeply immersed in what you could call grammar (though at a much deeper level than what you say they concern themselves with), BUT all linguists know and understand that languages are for communication and actively want to be understood, hence why they exist.

    You seem to think that linguists are what (and I mean no harm against him, though his methods of language study are much more strenuous than need be) Profassar is, but he's not even a self-proclaimed linguist, he's a philoglot.

    I love your blog and all you do and I am definitely interested enough to read all your articles, but just know that linguists (the ones whose JOBS it is to study language, not just people who happen to read a few books here and there about language) by and large don't concern themselves with language study focused solely on grammar. In fact, if anyone understands and preaches that grammar focused study will slow you down immensely and is a backwards way of approaching language, it is linguists.

    Just sticking up for my kind. I love your blog all the same, no worries.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks! I'm sure not all linguists are as boring as the ones I keep running into ;) I'm sure lots of them say that speaking is important, but I find it hard to believe that a linguist would ever promote elements outside of the content of a language like body language, squilli, how long to wait before replying to someone etc.

    Hopefully I'll run into more interesting linguists like yourself some time to give me motivation to stop dissing them so much on my blog :P

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    When you look at the differences between two given languages, they seem to only be grammar and vocabulary based, so it's logical for some people to focus on that I guess… but it's still too content focused in my opinion.

    Yeah, I wonder if non-western approaches are more effective!

  • Martin_bures

    “Non verbal skills: Sometimes way more important than the verbal ones”

    This immediately reminded me of the book “Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, more precisely of the chapter called “Latin or Italian?” (chapter has just two pages)
    (see for complete text, I really recommend it)

    Richard Feynman there describes his conversation in Italian without actually knowing how to speak it:-)

  • Corcaighist

    Just thought I'd add, as a linguist myself, that among the many misconceptions held by the online language learning community concerning linguists two of the greatest are: 1) a linguist's job is to find the ideal method for language study; and 2) all linguists are concerned solely with phonology and morphosyntax.

    On both counts, nothing could be further from the truth. A linguist's job is to scientifically study all aspects of Language and languages, form, function, use, history, speakers, development, acquisition, change…Language learning and morphosyntax are the pursuits of only a subset of linguists and these pursuits are only a subset of the wide field that is linguistics.

    I don't know where people get these notions (perhaps confusing linguists with bad childhood experiences with grammar-obsessed language teachers or nutters that writer letters to the editor complaining about the decay of language amongst today's youth). Linguists should not be confused with grammarians nor with language teachers. There is a certain he-who-shall-remain-nameless who loves to preach that lingustics is a waste of time and space despite not knowing anything about the field himself.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    OK, I get the point – so many comments about the mention of linguists at the start… I've edited the post to reflect that grammarians are the bad guys :P lol

    I'll try to tone down the linguistics bad-mouthing in future ;) Sorry to add to the misconceptions!

  • CaoraRua

    After spending 4 years of my life in the linguist tribe and partly having become one myself, I must admit that the only reason linguists chat about “subjunctives, past participles, cases and word roots, conjugations, tone rules and so on” (moreover: conjunct and absolute flexion, augment, clefts and so on) is because they love the sound of these words. Just pronounce it: AUGMENT!!! It sounds so hilarious and clever that can't stop talking about it! :)

  • Piernicola

    I swear… when you told me today about the italian “Squillo” I thought you were referring to prostitutes! :-) That's another name for them… so I was trying to figure out what part of the non verbal comunication your post was about!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    ahahahaha. I was wondering why there was a sudden pause :p
    Not quite the kind of communication I was talking about! :D

  • ElGuapo

    Completely agree. That's my #1 rule of learning a foreign language by a long shot.

    That's pretty much all you need to know to be successful.

    I actually wrote about this a month ago on my blog,

  • Lisa

    Haha… this does explain why sometimes people think I'm a foreigner when I'm just speaking my native language… I have autism and I can't get voice tone/volume, social queues, etc. right in any language :P

  • Carl Joseph

    That's a fascinating experience from the other side there Lisa. I never would've though the perception worked the other way too. Just goes to show how much does happen with the “unspoken.”

  • Traveler

    Amazing pic! :)

  • Cainntear

    Grammar is a great way to start learning a language. I think the problem is that people get caught up in a single habit — “this is working, so I'll keep doing it” — and never realise that being an intermediate learner is different from being a beginner, so you should be doing different things.

  • Cainntear

    Any modern linguistics course will have a massive amount on paralinguistic features (expression, tone of voice etc) and will discuss concepts like lexicogrammar/lexical bundles/the idiom principle.

    One of the big fields in linguistics is the concept of Systemic Functional Linguistics, which analyses language in terms of ideational, textual and interpersonal metafunctions. Ideational — the core concept or dictionary “meaning” or a word or other language element; textual — the properties or characteristics of the language element that affect how a text becomes a single coherent unit; interpersonal — how the choice of language feature expresses social distance, approval/disapproval, respect etc between speaker and listener.

    Believe me, Benny, you might find it “hard to believe”, but you are not the first person to notice that language isn't just the rules in a Latin book from 1785. If anyone's going to notice this, it's the guys who make a living from studying it.

    The problem is that most language teachers aren't linguists and never read any linguistics literature….

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Cainntear, I am still finding it “hard to believe”. Everything you listed still doesn't cover what I feel is important. It's still just content of a language, albeit expanded to tone of voice etc. which alter the meanings of certain words, so I'm not surprised this is covered by linguists.

    Do linguists study social features outside of an actual language, such as the squillo example I gave? If so then great! If not then I'll remain sceptical that they are the best people to turn to for advice on actually applying the language in spoken contexts.

    Linguists study languages, and that's fine. But I'm after communication in social environments, which is not covered sufficiently enough by pure language, including everything you've just listed. Knowing everything you just listed would still leave someone short-changed in their ability to communicate in my opinion.

    If linguists are experts in this (social dynamics and psychology) too then I stand corrected.

  • PGS

    Then you stand corrected.

    Linguistics started covering social dynamics and psychology starting in the early 20th century. Things like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Linguistic relativity), the grander corpus of Noam Chomsky's works concerning universal grammar (and though his concept contains the word “grammar,” it IS a study of psychology and social dynamics, believe me).

    This series of posts has left me with the impression that you are very misinformed about the field of Linguistics and what it entails.

    Coincidentally, the squillo is in fact a very interesting mark of Italian culture, but you're not really talking about how that makes you more fluent in any sense, just how it's a way of further understanding Italian culture. That's somewhere between linguistics and anthropology The fact that each missed call carries a unique meaning depending on context is the part that falls under linguistics; the fact that they do it at all falls under anthropology. The fact that you use that to better connect you to the culture you are trying to become a part of just means you are ingratiating yourself into a culture, which says nothing for or against linguists.

    Though your responses here show that you have a pretty significant gap in your knowledge of linguistics, so, I bring you the main sub-fields of linguistics:

    Phonetics, the study of the physical properties of speech (or signed) production and perception.

    Phonology, the study of sounds (or signs) as discrete, abstract elements in the speaker's mind that distinguish meaning.

    Morphology, the study of internal structures of words and how they can be modified.

    Syntax, the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences.

    Semantics, the study of the meaning of words (lexical semantics) and fixed word combinations (phraseology), and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences.

    Pragmatics, the study of how utterances are used in communicative acts, and the role played by context and non-linguistic knowledge in the transmission of meaning.

    Discourse analysis, the analysis of language use in texts (spoken, written, or signed)

    Your post here seems to deal mostly with Pragmatics.

    Main point of this whole response: yes Linguistics encompasses psychology. You can't study language without it. The people who really study it are obviously not going to miss that. Just to quote the basic wikipedia on Linguistics, here are some things you can't study linguistics without, as obviously recognized by Linguists themselves: psychology, speech-language pathology, informatics, computer science, philosophy, biology, human anatomy, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, and acoustics.

    Hopefully this was informative. Here's some interesting reading while you're at it and want to read a little more into linguistic psychology:

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  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks a lot for the information ;)

    As I said, I'll try to bad-mouth linguists less in future.

  • ajtacka

    It's not exactly that, but there is Muphry's Law…'s_law

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    ahaha Loved it :D

  • KK

    Some lonely loser is reading your blog every day and copying your posts!

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  • Joeyparkiti

    Now the million dollar question:

    How many languages do you speak?

  • KK

    It's like asking a mechanic how many cars he owns.

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  • KK

    you're not the problem Benny ;)

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