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

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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!! 😛 )

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 🙂

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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

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