Transparent Language Blog

Language and Body Language Posted by on Apr 11, 2016 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Cheer Up

Now, this may come as some surprise to you, but I suppose everyone’s got to learn sometime, so here goes: languages come out of a person’s mouth, and a person’s mouth is attached to their body.

Furthermore, if you can believe it, the way the person poses and positions the various appendages and external parts of their body as a means to communicate (also known as body language), and their reasons for or intentions in doing so, are a direct result of the culture in which they were raised.

Incredible, I know.

Finally and therefore (if you haven’t already fainted from flabbergastery), a person’s spoken language and body language are tightly connected.

Take a moment to collect your blown mind.

I first realized this very important connection between the unspoken language of the human body and the spoken language of the human mouth when I first moved to France many years ago. It was my first time living in a foreign country, and the first time I was having to speak a foreign language (aside from Spanish, which I’d learned for ten years in school – meaning, of course, that I couldn’t speak a word of it). More specifically, it was the first time I had to speak a foreign language to people who didn’t always understand that I didn’t speak their language fluently.

Here’s what happened: my washing machine broke. The landlord agreed to pay for a new one, but I would have to organize a time for the delivery guy to come by and drop off the new one. As is common with France, the company was closed for 99.9% of the week, so a phone conversation was required to sort out the exact time when his schedule and my schedule overlapped. At this point, I had only been learning French for a few months, so of course the conversation was a complete disaster. I ended the call prematurely after several minutes of being yelled at in French.

I was upset – not for being bad at French, as I knew I was bad, but I didn’t think I was that bad. It was then that I realized I had just had the first conversation without the visual aid of body language.

Every conversation I’d had in French previous to that phone conversation had been made with the visual aid of seeing the body language of the person to whom I was speaking. There’s so much silent communication going on with body language, which I only realized was missing when it wasn’t there. Without those very important clues in the eyes, mouth and limbs, I was missing a huge part of the conversation, and had to rely purely on words spoken and the tone of voice. In this case – the gruff tone of a washing machine delivery guy trying to talk sense into a bewildered Francophobe.

To this day, I have the most trouble speaking in a foreign language over the phone. I no longer take body language for granted, but I have yet to find a good system for effectively communicating without it. Next time I’ll have to Skype the delivery company.

Are there languages which require specific knowledge of body language to effectively communicate? Italian’s an obvious one, are there others?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Ruth:

    That’s funny… I had been thinking all this time that the reason I am so much worse in French on the phone is because I can’t look at the person’s mouth to (vaguely) lip-read. It never even occurred to me that it could be related to body language. But now that you mention it, of course that’s what it is. And now I feel a bit silly for actually being mind-blown at this revelation.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Ruth Well, now that YOU mention it, vaguely lip-reading probably does play a role. Interesting!!

  2. roberto audiffred:

    You need to travel?

  3. Marnangkok Pakpahan:

    It’s great and useful. I like it.

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