Five Essential Body Language Basics for English Learners

Just as languages are different, body language differs greatly from culture to culture. Experts say that body language communicates 65-70% of the message, so it is an important aspect of language/culture to teach. There are five essential American body language basics: shaking hands, yes/no gestures, touching, speaking distance, and eye contact. Many English learners are unaware of how their body language conveys positive and negative messages.
Shaking hands is a common way of greeting in the U.S. and people are often judged based by their handshake. However, there are many different ways of greeting around the world. It is fun to ask students to explain and demonstrate their greeting customs. Bowing has certain depths and length of time. Kissing is done is several different ways. Kneeling is also a form of greeting. The American greeting is a firm, short handshake that indicates confidence. For teen and adult students shaking hands is especially important because they will go for job interviews. Shake each student's hand and give constructive criticism. Many have a limp handshake while others squeeze too hard. Some hold hands too long, while others release too quickly.  Teaching these subtleties is always appreciated.
As an English language teacher you have probably observed body language for saying 'yes' and 'no' has many forms. Some cultures purse their lips to the right and left. Others lift their eyebrows in different ways. Wagging the chin back and forth is another gesture meaning 'yes'. Students may tilt their head back to mean yes. These body movements are significant in their culture and /their value should by acknowledged. To help students adapt to their new culture, teach nodding up and down for 'yes' and moving the head right and left for 'no'. Many find this motion silly and very humorous. Shaking the head often feels awkward and needs to be practiced by many.
Hand gestures are also culturally based movements. The thumbs up sign and O.K. sign with the thumb and pointer forming a circle are considered rude, suggestive, or obscene in some cultures. Teach that thumbs up means 'good' and and thumbs down means 'bad'. The O.K. sign in the U.S. just means 'O.K." and  nothing else. Also, avoid using hand gestures to teach numbers. An open hand with five fingers out does not mean five in many countries. A closed fist may mean five. Counting by using fingers is to usually understood by most cultures. Dice(with dots) and dominoes are a better tool for numbers and more universally understood.
Touching is another cultural expression of relationship. Many cultures do not touch in public, while others commonly hold hands with friends. In some cultures men and women never touch in public. Americans often touch and even hug strangers. Teachers may touch a student's shoulder to get their attention or touch their hand to help them. These simple gestures may interpreted as too familiar or suggestive by an English learner. Asking permission to touch a student is a good way to let them know you respect them and their culture.
If you have lived in another country, you have probably noticed that the distance people stand apart while speaking varies greatly. Americans prefer to stand an arm's length apart. Often an American will step backward from a person to guard their 'personal space'. This is usually considered rude by an English learner. Choose a student from a close standing culture to demonstrate the difference in talking distance. Remember, just as standing close is uncomfortable for an American, standing far apart is uncomfortable for many English learners.
Lastly, eye contact is very important in most western cultures. In the U.S. looking down or away is considered rude and dishonest. Direct eye contact is considered trustworthy, honest, and truthful. However, in many cultures looking down is a sign of respect, particularly if the other person has a higher rank or authority. This is behavior is very challenging for older students to change. It can take a long time for some English learners to become comfortable looking directly into an authority's eyes. Patience and practice are key to helping students adapt to this new body language.
Of course there are many other body movements and gestures which could be addressed, but these five are essential for students from other cultures to learn.

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