The Language of Communication
Danny Singh, UK
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, has been living in Rome, Italy for the last 18 years, teaching predominantly adults working in companies, Politicians etc. Almost every summer he is a guest speaker at Pilgrims summer courses. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
How and why we teach?
Research by Professor Albert Mehrabian at the University of California, shows that 55% of communication is done using body language, while 38% involves tone of voice. Only 7% is done with words. Grammar isn’t even mentioned. Yet, the vast majority of English teachers continue to spend the greater part of their lessons explaining and practising grammar forms. In classrooms all over the world, you can see students sitting on a chair for the best part of a lesson, books open, while the teacher contrives to explain a seemingly complicated grammar structure.
Is it possible to speak a language, if you know grammar, but no words? Is it possible to speak a language, if you know a few words, but no grammar? I often get stopped in the streets of Rome by tourists desperately searching for a famous monument. What is amazing is the sheer number of ways used to ask, what is essentially the same question! “Scuse me, where is er Colosseum?” “You know where is Colosseum?” “Do you know where is possible to find Colosseum?” Not a bad attempt the last one, but my favourite has to be, “Colosseum?” No question words, no verbs, prepositions or adverbs, but said with exactly the right intonation, the message is clear. This is real communication.
A Brazilian studying English in London observed how people went about ordering coffee at the Royal Festival Hall. While he was trying to construct the right grammatical sentence and was in doubt over whether to use the polite or impolite forms, he noticed that most people simply said, “Two coffees please,” and that the barman said, “Sugar?” instead of, “Would you like some sugar?” This is of course perfect English, but there is such a thing as context. This is not a private tea party among members of the higher establishment, but a busy cafeteria, where saving time is essential to communication. This can be illustrated further with an extreme example of a person drowning in a deep river. It would be most correct to say, “Excuse me! I was wondering if you’d mind helping me, as I seem to be in some kind of difficulty!” However, in a real life situation, the best form of communication here is, “Help!” with a terrorised expression on your face and arms waving all over the place.
A few years ago, I was at a “trattoria” (a family-run Italian restaurant) in a very popular area of Rome, known as Testaccio. There were five of us and the tables were placed very close together. We had decided to have a pizza before going to see a French film called “Amelie”, which I’d highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it. There was an American couple very close to us, who were clearly having difficulty reading the menu. My dear friend, who was sitting closest to them, began with, “I try to help you.” I listened passively as he translated several ingredients. More or less every sentence he used was grammatically incorrect. However, at the end of his explanation, the couple thanked him and when he indicated that I was his English teacher, they didn’t even start laughing, but congratulated me. What kind of Americans were they? Had they failed to notice the use of the present perfect instead of the past simple for an action already finished? Obviously, they didn’t care, as the main goal had been reached, communication! This contrasts with another person in the group, who remained almost paralysed in her chair and couldn’t understand how our other friend had had the courage to speak, when his level of English was officially lower. I asked her what she did during her English course, which incidentally was at a private language school. Have you worked out the answer yet? Yes, lots of grammar and very little conversation!
How important are words to communication? Babies don’t start speaking until they are around two years old. Yet up until then, they rarely have problems indicating what they want. How do they communicate without words and tone of voice? With rapid hand and foot movements, eye movements and a series of grunts and noises to show approval, appreciation or rejection. As they begin absorbing and comprehending the sounds of their parents, they also use their hands and fingers to point to what they want. Mothers and fathers may require a certain amount of patience, but they don’t often have difficulties identifying the needs of their young offspring.
What about cats and dogs, the most common pets? How many words are there in the vocabulary of a cat? Only one that comes to mind, that’s meow! Dogs have a slightly larger vocabulary, which consists of woof woof and bow-wow. These sounds by the way, vary from country to country, so if by any chance, the cats and dogs where you are, make different sounds to the aforementioned, don’t start snarling or growling at me!
Cat and dog owners usually understand the needs of their pets. How do dogs and cats communicate with such a small vocabulary? Intonation is of great importance. Each individual meow has a different meaning. With one word, a cat can indicate if it is hungry, tired, angry, afraid or in need of affection. Dogs similarly, use different tones in their bark to help their owners understand their specific needs and requirements.
Cats and dogs naturally use a lot of body language. Dogs wag their tails to show when they are excited. The position of their ears can also indicate their emotional frame of mind. Cats meanwhile will move their tails when they are not happy about something. They purr to express their emotions and their hairs stand on end, when they are frightened. Both cats and dogs use their tongues to communicate in various situations, something far less common in the human race due to social conventions, apart from when people are speaking Spanish.
How many words are there in the English language or in any language for that matter? Just open any dictionary and you will see! People have such a large number of words to communicate with and still there are so many misunderstandings. What would happen if human beings spoke languages that consisted of just one or two words? Stress, intonation and rhythm would be fundamental. In fact, they are of absolute importance, even with the many thousands of words at our disposition.
Take a basic word like hello! Hello can mean so many different things according to the way you say it. It can be an open jovial hello, indicating your interest in the person, or a quick grunt with no eye contact, showing your feeling of total indifference or a desire to make no further contact with the person in that moment. It can be a nervous hello, demonstrating your possible fear, or it can be opened out in such a way to make it sound even sensual, thereby communicating your sexual attraction toward that person.
This can be practiced with students. Take any word and get your students to say it as many times as possible, in as many different ways as possible, with different levels of emphasis, feelings and emotions. Get the other students to then identify what the real message is. Apart from being extremely entertaining, it is interesting to see how effective we are at identifying and comprehending what people really want to say.
Intonation is the most important aspect of pronunciation. A couple of years ago, an Italian colleague was trying out his English pronunciation skills on one of those multi-media courses, where you read out a sentence and the programme gives you a result. He was giving a pretty poor performance in trying to say, “I’m a doctor.” The computer kept giving him about 52%. After several attempts, he uttered a few swear words at the computer, called me over and asked me to read the sentence. I did so with my perfect English accent and the computer awarded me 96%. Wow! He uttered a few more obscenities, before trying again himself. Once again, he repeated the expression with a poor pronunciation; however, this time he copied my rhythm and intonation. The computer gave him 84%, which illustrates my point that good intonation is more valuable than a good pronunciation.
I remember walking into a classroom several years ago for a lesson with a new student on a one-to-one basis. I politely asked him, “How are you” to which he responded automatically with a, “Fine thanks, and you?” He’d obviously learned this from one of those direct method courses. That’s where they train you to respond rapidly to any question thrown at you. The only problem in this case, is that both his intonation and body language said, “Absolutely awful.” In fact, my first reaction was that I had misheard his answer, so I asked him to repeat himself. He did and it was exactly the same. When I asked him about his past experience with the English language, he mentioned a course at one of those direct method schools.
Try following a conversation among people speaking a language that you don’t know. It’s difficult isn’t it? Now try focusing purely on their intonation. You may well find that you can guess some of what they are saying. This will depend of course on how much intonation they use, one of the problems being that some people use little or no intonation. However, most people do use intonation in their speech, so unless you are terribly unlucky, you should be able to comprehend something.
Another fun activity is getting students to practice stressing and pronouncing words in several different ways. This makes them see how ridiculous something can seem, if said with the wrong intonation. This task is facilitated, if the students are able to stand up and move freely around the classroom, which takes us nicely on to body language.
Body language and everything which relates to it is used sparingly in the classroom. Eye contact, hand movements, facial gestures, body posture and the physical distance between people are fundamental skills in the language of communication. How else can we explain the fact that some people manage to travel all over the world, totally unable to speak any foreign language, yet remain perfectly capable of communicating their needs to anyone they come across? Others spend months and even years following expensive and time-consuming courses, only to find that when they get the opportunity to speak, they freeze. People who speak the same language have misunderstandings on an almost daily basis. Even same nationality married couples, have enormous communication difficulties, as I’m sure you all know.
Textbook lovers among you may remember “The Girl with Green Eyes” from an old edition of Headway Elementary. A couple were travelling in a train and while the husband was blabbering on, the wife began looking at a tall dark man, who was reading a newspaper. The husband then went off to get some food. When he came back, he noticed that his wife was missing. A young child told him that his wife had got off the train with the tall dark man. The husband couldn’t comprehend how this had happened. No words were exchanged, he insisted. In this case, it was purely eye contact, as green eyes looked deeply into dark brown eyes. This is an excellent example of communication using only eye contact. The husband, who had been blabbering on, thought that he was communicating, but he had no idea how to communicate, hence he found himself in this awful predicament. We communicate far more with our eyes than we care to notice. Just think of when we are in crowded places, shopping centres, public transport etc.
You can spend hours demonstrating different kinds of facial gestures and body posture with students and they usually recognise the differences quite easily, but when it comes to using it in their communication, they rarely use it, preferring to concentrate on their actual spoken language, made in an unnatural classroom setting. These are areas that need to be mastered, both in their own language, as well as in a foreign one. It is as fundamental to good communication, as intonation is. People don’t listen to every word you say. They usually listen to the sounds, rhythm and intonation. Only when you say something that they are not expecting, will they suddenly switch on.
In language learning, there is an additional problem, cultural differences! This means that there are differences in eye contact, hand movements, facial gestures, body posture and the physical distance at which people feel comfortable, while talking to each other.
I have been giving workshops on the subject of body language at Pilgrims in the Canterbury hilltops for many years and while there in its thriving multi-national community; I have an ideal environment in which to do my experiments.
In an average workshop, I’ll have 20-30 people from at least 7-8 nationalities. It’s interesting to see how far the stereotypes we have of different nationalities are in fact, so close to the truth. There is always one Spanish girl whose idea of comfortable physical distance is almost body-to-body contact and she usually grins with pleasure as the sweat drips down my face, demonstrating my anxiety. I get my revenge however, with the Japanese girl who stands at the other side of the room, refusing to move. When I then take one step forward, she will invariably start screaming.
From years of experimenting, the stereotypes usually hold up. However, there is always the exception to the rule. The girl who claims to be Spanish, but won’t let me anywhere near her, or the German man waving his arms about and making eye contact. Surely not, you ask? Well, that was once, but as I said before, there are rare exceptions.
Nationality is of course, not the only factor involved in body language. There is also that of gender. Females tend to be more communicative with their bodies when talking to each other, than men talking to men. An interesting situation to observe is the male-female communication. If it is first time contact, there will usually be a certain caution between the two, with each one respecting the other’s space.
So apart from nationality and gender, there is of course the personality of the individual. No unanimous conclusions can be drawn, but a few generalisations can be made.
A great activity to illustrate the above is to get students to react in different ways to demonstrate interest and attention, or lack of it, to the speaker. They should do this with their body posture, hand movements and facial gestures. We are conditioned, as we grow older to move our face muscles less and less. A lot of tension and stress is therefore contained within the face muscles, while the use of simple facial gestures can help alleviate this, as well as enabling us to communicate better.
Another activity I often do while waiting for a train to depart from a train station, is watching the people outside on the platform and trying to imagine what they are talking about. In Italy of course, you see lots of arms waving around, but you may be surprised to learn that even in an English pub, you can observe people from a distance communicating with what seems like excessive body language. Try observing people whose conversation you can’t hear and put together a kind of dialogue based purely on their body language!
Once these activities have been done with students, they can be put together to combine word stress, intonation and body language, showing how fundamental they are as assets in the language of communication.
This article clearly illustrates how communication is a mixture of body language, tone of voice, rhythm, stress and a few words. With this in mind, we as teachers, have to consider how and why we teach languages, why it is often so grammar orientated, why the majority of students spend much of their time doing passive, written gap-fill exercises, but are then unable to communicate once out on the street. Why do state schoolteachers spend a two-hour lesson practising nationalities, many of which will never be used again, or even worse the use of the apostrophe to illustrate possession? Is it any wonder that many students eventually reach the point where they resign themselves to the fact that English is an impossible language for them to learn?
Don’t get me wrong! I am not against the teaching of grammar or accuracy in language teaching. If a student has to do an official presentation, then accurate formal English is of primary importance. However, the majority of students need English for the purpose of informal communication.
Even more startling figures show that 95% of language teachers regularly use textbooks! Like some students, they feel insecure without them. The majority of textbooks are archaic even before they become out of date and deal with issues, which have little or no connection to the reality of the student. What do we plan to do, to make our teaching more successful and productive for the students? Our role as teachers is to get our students to communicate confidently and to stimulate our students to have the desire to learn. So, throw away those overrated and overpriced text books and start teaching real communication, using body language, role play, real-life experiences, emotional intelligences and multi-sensory experiences, to name but a few.
Please check the Drama course at Pilgrims website.