How to teach international body language and gestures

Summary: A guide to presenting and practising variations in body language and gestures around the world

I’ve published a lot of articles on this site recently about how to use gestures and body language to teach grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, functional language, etc. However, it is sometimes just as useful to actually teach body language and gestures. This can include general lessons on good body language in job interviews, presentations, etc, but for most students is far more interesting and useful to tackle international differences in how we use our bodies.

A lesson or two on this topic can help students communicate more effectively, make static students more willing to use their bodies, add a physical warmer to tired classes, help students remember any accompanying phrases, make sure that they don’t accidentally offend anyone, and perhaps rebalance a course that over-emphasizes the culture of English-speaking countries such as the UK and USA. The topic is especially important if students are planning to travel abroad or give presentations to international audiences. To kill two birds with one stone, there are also some ideas below on how this topic can be tied in with language points.


How to present and practise international body language and gestures

To plan a lesson on international body language, you’ll need to start by selecting which gestures etc to include in your lesson. Priorities are likely to include a mix of:

  • rude, offensive and taboo body language and gestures (so that students can avoid them, and so that they can recognise them, especially in movies but also, if they are unlucky, in real life!)
  • gestures which have the same meaning as gestures that your students use in their own country, but which are more likely to be understood/ more universal gestures than those which your students use
  • gestures that go with useful English phrases (an index finger held up with “Just a moment”, etc)
  • gestures that are used in countries which your students are particularly interested in visiting, often do business with, often watch movies from, etc (Thai taboo gestures, body language in Japan, etc)

Gestures that I generally include in my own lessons on international body language and gestures include, in approximate order of importance:

  • two/ victory/ peace
  • money
  • yes
  • no
  • okay
  • “Just a moment”
  • “Please go ahead”/ “Please help yourself”/ “After you”
  • so-so/ more or less
  • good
  • great/ wonderful
  • bad
  • terrible
  • hi/ hello
  • “Come here”
  • “Go away”
  • you
  • I/ me
  • stop
  • “Can I have the bill/ check, please?”
  • 1, 2, 3, etc
  • 10, 9, 8, etc
  • I wish/ good luck
  • congratulations/ well done
  • thank you
  • crazy
  • “Please be quiet”
  • shaking hands with “Nice to meet you”/ “Pleased to meet you”
  • shaking hands with “It’s a deal”/ “I can shake on that”
  • “Excuse me, can I get past?”
  • tea/ hot drink
  • alcoholic drink
  • delicious/ tasty
  • “I promise”/ “Cross my heart (and hope to die)”
  • time out/ “Let’s take a break (and come back to it later)”
  • “Time’s nearly up”/ “We’re running out of time”
  • please stop speaking
  • “Mind your own business”/ “Never you mind”
  • be careful
  • please/ I beg you
  • I’m being sarcastic

There are others which are so common and easy to guess that they probably don’t need teaching as gestures, but could be included in such as a lesson to teach useful phrases like “I’ll phone you”.

Perhaps the easiest way to start presenting this topic is to do a gesture, say which country or countries it is used in, and see if students can guess the meaning, perhaps from a limited list of options (said before and/ or after the gestures, written on the board or written on a worksheet). Variations include:

  • saying the meaning and place(s), and getting students to guess which of the gestures that you do has that meaning
  • saying the meaning and place(s), and getting students to make gestures until someone does the one that you are thinking of
  • saying the meaning and doing the gesture, and seeing if students can guess the country
  • saying the meaning and country and doing the gesture, and seeing if students can guess what (if anything) is wrong about those three things (e.g. that the meaning and gesture are right, but in a different country to the one you said)

You could also combine more than one thing by:

  • doing gestures and saying meanings from one country without saying the name of the place, until students guess the place that they all come from
  • describing different meanings of one gesture in different places until students do the right gesture
  • doing two to five gestures and saying the same number of meanings and seeing if students can match the gestures and the meanings

This presentation stage can also be done in groups by giving students different descriptions and meanings to use in that stage on Student A and Student B worksheets. For example, if one description says “Touch the left side of your neck with your right index finger and slowly draw your finger across your throat to the right, touching your neck all the time – UK and USA – “I will kill you” (usually meant as a joke)”, they could say the place and do the gesture and see if their partner can guess the meaning (or any of the other activities above).

Particularly if you made written descriptions, similar activities can also be used in the practice stage, with perhaps the most fun being students making up their own false descriptions to go with the true ones that you gave them, to try and fool other groups with.

Tying international body language and gestures in with language practice

Particularly if you used written descriptions in the presentation and/ or practice stages, at the same time as teaching useful body language, you can use descriptions and accompanying phrases to teach:

  • body parts
  • prepositions of position and movement
  • social and functional language (“Nice to meet you”, “Can I have the bill?”, etc)

For example, students can fill in missing body parts, prepositions or missing words from accompanying spoken phrases.

Copyright © 2019

Written by Alex Case for

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