written by: Keren Perles
• edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
• updated: 1/20/2012
When teaching ESL students, it is easy to focus on verbal communication. After all, all that the students are lacking is knowledge of the English language, right? In truth, nonverbal communication is important as well.
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In American culture, people tend to look at each other when as they converse. Avoiding eye contact signifies discomfort or rudeness. In some other cultures, however, such as Asian and African cultures, making eye contact with a superior or a figure of authority is considered rude. A student may therefore seem to be avoiding eye contact with a teacher because of feelings of guilt or inadequacy but, in actuality, is showing reverence for the teacher’s position. Explaining to ESL students the importance of maintaining eye contact during conversations with people that are culturally American can help them to avoid these difficult situations.
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Although Americans tend to value personal space, leaving room between themselves during a conversation, people in other cultures may not share this posture. In some Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, for example, people may sit or stand right next to each other while conversing, leaving no personal space between themselves. ESL students who come from these cultures can make Americans feel awkward or uncomfortable without meaning to simply by standing too close to others during socialization. Teaching ESL students about the American convention of personal space can help them flourish socially in the US, and practicing often can help them to become comfortable with this manner of conversing.
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Some Americans seem to tend to rush matters, and communication is no exception. Americans rarely leave long pauses in conversation; instead, they fear long pauses and take them as a sign of discomfort or intimidation. People from other cultures, however, are often more comfortable with long pauses, treating them as an opportunity for the listener to assimilate the information. ESL students that leave long pauses in conversation may give off the impression that they are upset at the information they have just heard. Discussing this issue with ESL students can help them to become more cognizant of long pauses in their discussions and can help them to limit those pauses with people who are culturally American.
ESL and nonverbal communication is not discussed as often as ESL and verbal communication perhaps because a classroom environment does not lend itself to much practice of nonverbal communication. The teacher stands behind a desk, the students sit in their assigned locations, and discussions are usually directed by the teacher. Therefore, nonverbal communication may not receive the recognition it deserves. Nonetheless, teaching your ESL students the value of nonverbal communication can help them navigate the American culture more proficiently.