Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Looking for signs: understanding foreign body language

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Explanations of foreign body language / gestures is one of the many many things you won't find in grammar books and typical courses. And it's something you'll never pick up from audio based passive learning.

The vast majority of non-verbal communication is actually universal – it would just seem strange to list them. But then there are quite a few gestures that are indeed very different or unique to particular cultures. Without learning these you will never be able to fully communicate with and understand people from these countries.

Is the nightclub separating the thumb from fingers??

This important aspect of communication has been clear to me many times during my travels. For example, during my Brazilian mission to speak like a Carioca, things were going well in my accent reduction attempts, but one night I was in a nightclub looking out the window and a man was trying to communicate with me. Since it was too loud to shout, he tried to sign something to me – with his arm up he separated his thumb from his fingers repeatedly. To him it was pretty obvious what he was trying to say.

Unfortunately I couldn't answer his question – only later when I asked a friend inside what it meant did she tell me that it was cheio – full. That's the Brazilian sign for full – something we can't even sign in English (at least that I know of). He wanted to know if the nightclub was full or not.

Philippine gestures

Of course, I'm finding quite a few of these unique gestures here in the Philippines! You can see me demonstrate a couple of these in the video below:

Those shown in the video include pointing with your lips (rather than your finger) and the “menu please” and “check/bill please” signs used in restaurants, completely different to anywhere else I've lived in.

Pointing with your lips (rather than your fingers) is something I've seen in other cultures, including Colombia. The first time I was exposed to this it was very confusing, as it doesn't seem natural to me to indicate something with lips (I can visualise a line coming from a finger to the target a lot easier than from lips!) but in many places pointing with your finger is actually quite rude.

Another confusing part of Philippine gestures is how they request that you come over to them. They put out their arm with their palm facing down and “scoot” their fingers towards them. Since I am used to the palm facing up if someone is beckoning me towards them, I got confused about this a lot and thought they wanted me to move away.

And of course the feeling involved with the “scoot”/”go away” gesture could create a lot of confusion since it's disrespectful in some cultures. Understanding what this really means in its correct context will help you understand what is going on, well beyond studying vocabulary lists ever could.

The importance of actively learning such non-verbal communication

There are so many aspects of communication that are almost never covered in typical books. So much time in Latin cultures has meant that now if I hurt myself, I say “¡ay!” rather than “ouch!/ow!” – this isn't because I am translating it in my head, or for someone else's benefit; it's from pure exposure to the extent where it becomes natural.

It's the same with body language. Even if you do find a book that somehow lists all of the most frequent different signs – it may help you understand them when you see them, but without putting them in context and using them with natives, they can never become a natural part of your ability to communicate.

That's why I really must insist that people stop putting off this crucial stage of speaking directly with natives to some bogus “when I'm ready” day. I see the entire language-learning industry of books, CDs, courses, software – as nothing more than a way to embrace people's desire to postpone actually using their language as long as possible (as well as a purely commercial rather than actually beneficial endeavour).

It's busy-work. You may not be speaking with someone but “at least” you have learned all the preposition+verb combinations or clicked a hell of a lot of pictures on your computer screen.

Reading about the lip-pointing or downward-palm beckoning would have been interesting, but seeing them in context means that I'll never forget them. It also means that I'll adapt them myself much quicker. Of course, I don't need to be in the Philippines to do this – just hanging out with native Filipinos elsewhere would expose me to such things.

Check it out and then use it!

Since natives usually can't simply give you a list of their various body language differences, you'd be surprised to see what you can find online for free. Simply doing a Youtube search for “[Language name] hand gestures” or “… body language” or “… signs” will show you a crucial aspect of communication in your target language you may not have considered yet.

You'll likely get even more results if you do that search in the target language. So many natives have made very helpful videos, but (as would be natural to them) they write the name of the video in their language.

But rather than just watch the video and think “that's nice!” – please go meet a native speaker and practise those signs! Or better yet, learn from them! I've learned pretty much all my body language from seeing it used in context, or simply asking what it means when I see it and it isn't clear.

When I hang out with people from various cultures, I get told again and again that they feel like they are talking with someone from their home country and I have no problem making friends with them. Even the friendliest expats I know still feel disconnected and need to hang out with those from the same culture as them when abroad because they just can't seem to click with natives.

I can blend in easier not because of absolutely perfect grammar (I still make occasional mistakes even in my best languages) or access to obscure vocabulary. It's not even down to my accent (which is only really somewhat convincing in Portuguese and Spanish). It's because of my body language and understanding of important social cues.

Books might talk about these, and perhaps you'll recognise some of them when observing passively. But you can never really learn them without applying them.

So please, search social networks, find tourists or do whatever it takes to get some time with someone in your target language and don't forget that communication isn't just about the words that come out of your mouth!

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

Fluent in 3 Months Bootcamp Logo

Have a 15-minute conversation in your new language after 90 days