How important is non-verbal communication in language learning? Not very important. It may be important in face to face communication between native speakers, but it plays a small part in language learning in my experience. In fact, verbal communication, listening, reading, speaking,and writing are the keys to learning a language. It is the only way I can learn the many words that I will need in order to communicate.
This, of course, runs counter to the views of Benny in his most recent post at his blog. Benny paid us a visit at our LingQ Forum, in order to promote his book, which caused me to visit his blog, where I saw the following bits of wisdom. (see italics below). My comments follow his observations.
Benny: “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 verbal ones”
To communicate you need words. In some situations, like if something is stuck in your throat, then non-verbal communications take over.
Benny: “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.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!!”
You have to acquire the local social habits naturally, and it only comes after a lot of familiarity with the language and the people. If you try to deliberately imitate an Italian gesticulating,for example, you will just look foolish. The same would be true of a Japanese person who tried to behave like an American, slapping people on the back, without first having naturally acquired the sense of how these non-verbal forms of communication work. You have to start with the language , with words, the non-verbal communication comes much later, or you will just look like a clown.
Benny:”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,”
Benny likes to claim that he is often taken for a local in the languages he speaks. His accent in all languages is good but noticeably foreign, (nothing wrong with that mind you). A Brazilian thought he sounded like a caricature of a Carioca. That is the danger of trying to imitate body movements and gestures, you can seem like a caricature. It is far wiser to focus on learning the words. There are no gestures in reading and listening, two of the key ways we can acquire vocabulary and familiarity with a language.