Listening to body language

Body language plays a key role, especially at the subconscious level, in communication and an awareness of it and how it can vary from culture to culture, can be particularly important in helping students to develop their ability to understand in a real environment.

Listening to body language - listening article


  • The features of body language
    • Eye contact
    • Facial expression
    • Proximity
    • Posture
    • Gesture
  • Why I teach body language
  • How to teach body language
  • Conclusion


The features of body language
Body language is made up of a whole range of features many of which we combine together without ever thinking about what it is we are doing or what we are expressing.

Eye contact can have a very significant influence when you are interacting with them.

  • It can play a key role in helping to establishing rapport and failing to make eye contact in many cultures is associated with being dishonest or having something to hide.
  • Eye contact also plays an important role in turn taking during conversation. Among a group of people, a speaker will often make eye contact with the person he or she wants a response from. Someone who wants to enter or interject in a conversation will catch the eye of the person speaking to indicate that they want to interrupt, and equally someone who no longer wants to listen will avoid eye contact.
  • People who know each other well can communicate mutual understanding with a single look.
  • Eye contact is also a way of communicating attraction.


Facial expression is one of the most obvious and flexible forms of communication and can easily convey mood, attitude, understanding, confusion and a whole range of other things.

Proximity is a far less obvious form of body language but can be equally as meaningful. It is also something that can easily be misinterpreted as it can vary so much from culture to culture.

  • Many British people require a lot of 'private space' and will often stand much further away from people than other nationalities whilst talking to them. They seldom touch each other whilst speaking.
  • Breaking these invisible boundaries can either make them very uncomfortable or signal attraction.


Posture can communicate a number of things.

  • Your posture can convey a whole range of attitudes, from interest or the lack of it, to degrees of respect or subordination.
  • Speakers often use posture to punctuate what they are saying, shifting forward in their seat or leaning in towards their interlocutor to punctuate an important point, or slumping back to indicate that they have finished making a point.


Gesture can be used to replace verbal communication.

  • Different finger, thumb or hand gestures can convey a range of meanings in different cultures, from insults to approval or even attraction.
  • Many good speakers or storytellers use hand gestures to illustrate their stories.
  • It can also form part of punctuation with head nods and hand movements, which relate to the stress, rhythm and tempo of their sentences. Speakers who use their hands a lot often let them drop at the end of a sentence. Heads often nod down when words in sentences are stressed.
  • One of the most obvious and in many ways useful gestures is pointing. "It's over there." "I want that one."


Why I teach body language
But if we use all these things subconsciously in our own language, so do we really need to 'teach' them in the classroom? For me the answer is yes. Although we do use and interpret all these factors in our first language communications, I believe that they aren't necessarily automatically transferable to the language we are learning.

  • Many students, especially when listening to a second language, focus so heavily on hearing and understanding 'the words' people are saying that they suffer from a form of cognitive overload. There is just too much incoming information for them to process and they miss many of these subtler messages.
  • When teachers deal with listening in class, this is most commonly done with the use of recorded text on audio tape or CD, so these more visual factors in the communication are neglected in our students' second language development.
  • Many of these traits of communication can have different meanings or be interpreted in completely different ways in different cultures.


How to teach body language
So how can we deal with body language and help our students to interpret it. For me one of the most useful mediums for this has been video and particularly video without the sound. Whenever I use video clips in class with my students I always play them through at least once without the sound on first.

There are a number of different tasks that I've used depending on the type of clip being shown.

  • It's often interesting to play the clip through and get students to speculate about the relationships of the people in the scene.
    • Who is emotionally closest or involved with which other characters?
    • What's the relationship between characters?
    • Who is feeling angry?
    • What is each person feeling or thinking?
  • You can also try to get students to predict what they think characters are talking about or even what they are saying. If their level is low then they can predict what kinds of things they would be saying in their mother tongue.
  • If you have access to, or can transcribe the script for the clips you use, you can get your students to try to act out the scene using the script before they hear it. Just let them watch first and think about what the character they have to play is likely to be thinking or feeling. This gets the students attempting to interpret their body language and express it through the way they read the script.
  • I've also found it interesting to do cultural comparisons using a scene from the target culture with a similar scene on a video from their own culture. Just choose something fairly straightforward, like a group of friends in a café or restaurant and ask students to look for differences in the way they interact.
    • Do they touch when they meet?
    • How close do they sit when they talk?
    • Do they touch whilst talking?
    • Do they make eye contact?
    • Do they openly express any emotions?
  • If you can't find parallel clips, then you could just watch a clip from the target culture and ask your students to think about how the scene would be different if it were in their country.
  • Getting students to view silently before they listen to a scene or video clip can also help them to look for 'subtext'. It is often the case that things are being implied which aren't stated in words. Getting students to focus on these factors can help to raise their awareness of the non-verbal communication, which is happening.
  • If you have time, try preparing two 'false' scripts for a scene. These can be slight variations on the authentic one. Then give the three scripts to the students and get them to watch the clip silently and deduce which of the scripts is the correct one.
  • If you can't get access to video from the target culture then you can still use clips from the students' mother culture. Things like politicians speaking or televised debates where there are a number of people round a table discussing something can be really useful. You can pause and get students to predict who will be speaking next, or who is making a point.


I believe that whatever kind of silent viewing you do and whatever you choose to focus on will ultimately help your students to understand when it comes to listening. They will at least have developed a conceptual framework for what they need to understand and will have built up some expectations of what they will hear. Listening should not be an activity we do divorced from visual context. What we see is part of the comprehension experience and body language forms a large part of how we communicate our message, even if at times we are unaware of it. Comprehension of body language may not help them when it comes to expressing themselves, but it's surprising just how much you can understand without ever hearing a word. If you don't believe me, why not try turning the volume off the next time you are watching TV. You'll be surprised.

Further reading
Field J. 'Skills and Strategies: Towards a new Methodology for Listening' ELT Journal Volume 52/2 April 1998
Willis J. 'The Role of the Visual Element in Spoken Discourse' ELT Documents 114. (Paradigm)

Nik Peachey, trainer and materials writer, British Council


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