Learning the Importance of Body Language as an ESL Student

You might think that having an article about body language on an ESL language learning site is quite ironic. But, to tell you the truth… it is not that unusual. You see, you use body language in your everyday conversations whenever you speak. You use body language in your everyday conversations whenever you listen. It is a way of communicating along with your verbal communication. So if you are learning English, you need to be aware of body language and its powerful role that impacts communication. Let’s look at it a little further so you can see what I mean.

What is body language?

Well, when we speak, we use more than just words. We also communicate with our hand gestures, facial expressions including eye contact, and other movements of the body. This is called body language or non-verbal communication. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines body language as the gestures, movements, and mannerisms by which a person or animal communicates with others.

60-80% of all communication is non-verbal

Did you know that psychologists have studied communication styles and note that 60-80% of all communication with others is non-verbal? Some psychologists even believe the statistics are higher than this. No matter what the exact figures are… I think you will agree with me that those numbers represent a really high percentage.  This is indicative of the importance of non-verbal communication. It does not matter what language you speak, the importance of non-verbal communication needs to be valued. In fact, you can show your attitude, feelings and moods with non-verbal communication even better than words. Someone can detect if you are happy, sad, bored, disinterested, in agreement or not, etc. Maybe you have a close friend or a spouse, and you can tell exactly what that person is feeling or even thinking by the nonverbal communication clues. There is an English expression You can read him like a book. This expression means that you can tell exactly what that person is thinking and feeling just by looking at him/her.

Relax – natural expression

The main thing about body language is that when you relax, your body naturally responds to the words you convey. For example, if you say something positive, then your face, body and hands reflect that, too. And if you are upset, your face, body and hands will show that emotion. Perhaps you have noticed this before with others or with yourself. Many people believe that you if you say something and your body language reflects something different, that it is more important to listen to your body language. This means that your body language reveals the truth of what really is happening or what you meant to say rather than your words. That’s how powerful it is.Pick up clues from others  A suggestion would be to watch other people when they interact and to pay attention to their body language. You can also be more attuned to your own body language and how people interact with you. Depending on the situation, you can see which elements work best in speaking. In an informal conversation the body language will be different from a more formal setting. So the more varied experiences you have each day with using your English language, the more opportunity you will have to pick up valuable clues from others in how to use body language and in how to understand it better.

Hand gestures

You might see someone using hand gesturing to emphasize major points, or someone might move their hand far apart to show how important something is. To show even more feeling, someone might clap their hands or raise a fist in the air. If you see someone who holds their hand out to you they might want to shake your hand as in a greeting. However this custom varies among countries. Some cultures express a greeting with a firm handshake, while others prefer a gentler grip. Some cultures close a deal or agreement by shaking hands, too. There are some countries where men don’t’ shake hands with women outside the immediate family. In some cultures, people bow, kiss on both cheeks or have any number of other common greetings. Again, there are cultural differences that you can watch for and be sensitive to. If they hold out two hands, they may want to just welcome you or direct you to be seated, etc. Some people may count with their fingers, too. But it is osuggested that you also verbally count at the same time, because in some cultures counting is done differently and it may be confusing (i.e. In France, people start with their thumb; in Japan, some people count by putting their thumb down to mean one, etc.)

Other popular hand gestures include waving to greet someone or even waving to say goodbye. And some people wave to catch a taxi. Often someone holds an index finger and thumb into a circle to mean “okay”. There might be additional hand gestures that you use or that you have noticed others using.

Cultural differences

An important thing to remember is that you should not assume that everyone throughout the world understands your gesture in the way that you intend it to be. If you notice an unexpected reaction to any gesture that you make, you might want to stick to verbal communication when stating a similar point with that person or you might be able to find out why that particular person had such a reaction. If the gesture means something different in another culture, then you can determine the proper use of that gesture in the future when communicating with that particular person or people from the same culture. You can decide to substitute something else or not to use it at all.

Facial expressions

Facial expressions are another common way to communicate. It is a good idea to have eye contact and respond when someone talks to you.  Although it is also important to note that the amount of eye contact varies among cultures. In English-speaking countries like Canada and the United States, having intermittent eye contact is important. You can smile at them when they say something humorous, positive or interesting. You can nod your head to show you are following their conversation or to show agreement. You may also interject a few short words or sounds (i.e. uh huh, mmmm, I see, etc.) to show that you are listening to the conversation. If the person is sharing something sad or something that happened that is almost unbelievable, you can shake your head back and forth to empathize (for sadness)or acknowledge how this could have happened (for something shared that may be unbelievable).

Personal space

Another factor to consider is the distance you keep to the people you are speaking to. This is called your personal space. You need to stand at a distance that is comfortable for both of you and strike a balance of not being too close or too far away. Some cultures stand closer together when they speak. Some enjoy more space. It is important for you to be aware of these differences to make the encounter positive and non-threatening.  If you are unsure, the best thing to do is to stand where you are comfortable and let the other person adjust his/her space if desired. Some people lean a little towards the speaker to show they are ready to listen and that they are open to what the speaker has to say. In some cultures, if you fold your arms in front of you, that gesture is viewed as being unfriendly. It is probably better to keep your hands at your sides when listening. Another good reason for this is that it frees your hands to make gestures, too.

Voice characteristic

s And of course, there is your voice. Besides the words you choose to say, your voice also has intonation, volume and pitch (high and low sounds). These characteristics all add to the meaning of what you say. When someone speaks strong and clear, he/she shows confidence. A quiet manner of speaking can mean several things. The person might be shy, or what is shared might be intended to be kept a secret, or perhaps the person speaking wants to say something more intimate to another person.  A shrill voice might show eagerness and excitement, maybe even shock or surprise. A flat voice might reveal that the person is disinterested, bored or tired. These are important factors to remember when you go on job interviews or when you have the opportunity to talk at meetings, work in a team, etc. at work or school.

Interpretation of body language

It might be interesting for you to read about what certain body language poses mean. Do you notice that you do some of these? Have you seen other people use these gestures? Do you agree with what the researchers’ mean by these gestures?

Standing with hands on hips – readiness or aggression

Arms crossed on the chest – defensiveness

Shoulders hunched – dejection, not confident

Hand to cheek – thinking and evaluating

Touching or slightly rubbing the nose – lying, doubting, rejection

Rubbing the eye – doubt, disbelief

Hands clasped behind the back – frustration, apprehension, anger

Head resting in hand or eyes downward – boredom

Rubbing hands – anticipation

Open palms – sincerity, openness, innocence

Pinching bridge of nose or eyes closed – negative evaluation

Patting or pulling on strands of hair – lack of confidence; insecure

Quickly tilting head - interest

Stroking chin – trying to make a decision

Looking down or away – disbelief, lying, not interested

Biting nails – insecure, nervous

Pulling or tugging at ear – indecisive

Tilting head for a long period of time – boredom

Paying attention to a listener’s non-verbal clues

If you are ever in a position to lead a meeting or speak to a group of any number of people, the non-verbal clues of your audience will tell you a lot. These clues should be able to tell you when you have talked enough, when someone else wants to speak, the mood of the crowd, and the reaction of the crowd to your speech. One helpful way to become better at speaking is to listen to the reaction of what your listening audience says through their non-verbal communication. Watch. Observe. Respond accordingly.

Understanding nonverbal communication improves with practice. The first thing you need to do is to be aware of the power of this type of communication. With experience, your beliefs, and your reaction you will become better at interpreting nonverbal communication. You will also be able to respond in more of a natural, meaningful way to others in any experience involving communication. Learning appropriate body language is important in interactions between and among others of any culture, but most specifically when engaging in conversation in any sort of global community. This skill is just as important as listening, speaking, reading and writing English when it comes to acquiring English language skills. Yes, there is a lot to learn about the English language, but with continuous effort, patient, direction, and study… your English language skills are getting stronger day by day.

In conclusion

I hope this article helps explain why I decided to write on the topic of body language/non-verbal communication as an owner of an English Language Learning company. I also hope that in reading this article you may have learned a few new things; or if nothing else, you will be more aware of the importance of nonverbal language and the role it plays in your daily language, no matter who you interact with.


Please write and share any insights you have regarding the topic of nonverbal language. Share a story of how body language benefits you or what you have discovered through your interactions with others. Do you have any other nonverbal gestures, facial expression, etc. that you use? Tell me about those, too. You may want to share something about your native culture and the specific nonverbal language that is often used. That would be fine, too. I’m ready to listen.

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