Non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures, are just as vital as speaking when it comes to real-life language use

Speaking without words: optimising your target language with non-verbal communication

Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.

However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.

Unpolished Polish

My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.

Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.

Thrifty speaking shortcuts

You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.

Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like somethingsomeone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like …like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.

Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.

If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!

Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.

Not just crutches

The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.

These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.

Learning multiple languages CAN be as simple as putting together coloured blocks!

Tackle multiple languages by blocking your time

I am a language hog. I’m eternally curious about them, and genuinely love studying them. So, I’m often actively learning multiple languages at the same time.

However, advice on learning multiple languages usually suggests plenty of caution and good planning. Now, you can be over-cautious; some suggest avoiding languages that are quite closely related, such as Norwegian and Icelandic, or Polish and Russian. However, I find that sometimes, this can actually help.

But overstretching yourself – however fun the activity – is a recipe for burnout. And, I’ve found, successful study sessions in a foreign language require a bit of conscientious preparation. You have to get in the mindspace for that language. At the very least, you need to (re-)activate your existing knowledge and plan to have something to say.

Because of that, few students will learn effectively by cramming three or more different languages into back-to-back study blocks on the same day.

Multiple languages pile-up

The problem was this: when I first started taking online lessons on iTalki, I had a tendency to spot any free time in my diary and fill it up. A sucker for punishment, you might think; rather, kid-in-a-sweetshop syndrome! So many languages, so little time…

For all busy people, it’s very tempting to do this. A free afternoon on Saturday? Squeeze in your German and Spanish. Only have one free evening in the week? Schedule three different language classes in it to make sure you’re getting your practice.

Nonetheless, this was a disaster for me. The result was always the same – I’d do well in the first class, then struggle to switch mindset for the following ones. I noticed the problem even when I left slightly longer, like a single day, between lessons. And, frankly, it’s a waste of the money to spend money on lessons and not be able to do the best you can in them.

Language blocks

However much I wanted to chop and change, it was necessary to create some separation. This way, at the very least, I could give each language a fair allocation of my time and energy. To this end, I’ve used trial and error to find an approach that works. And the trick, I’ve found, is spacing different languages into learning blocks of a few days.

What I do now is to carve my time into blocks of learning. Each one leads up to the big lesson ‘event’, where I can practise what I’ve learnt. Importantly, as much as possible, I keep each different language lesson separated by at least a couple of days on my calendar. In effect, you are spending your block working up to the pinnacle, which is the face-to-face lesson.

Short, sweet and focussed

It’s probably best not to make the blocks too long; two to four days working on a language is probably optimal before you cycle to the next one. You don’t want any one language to have too much downtime. But for those few days, ensure that your all your active learning is focussed on the single language.

The exception to the rule is with your languages in maintenance mode. These require less fresh learning and intensive vocab prep. For example, German and Spanish are my degree languages, and my strongest; therefore, I’ll pop a Spanish or German class on the same day as an Icelandic or Norwegian one – but never an Icelandic and Norwegian one on the same day.

Finally, it’s important to ‘sign off’ properly after you finish a block. For instance, I write up my lesson notes, add new vocab to Anki and spend some time putting any new vocabulary into example sentences. Tying it all off nicely after the big event is as important as preparing for it.

Why limit yourself?

If languages are your joy and passion, then why limit yourself? It’s true that you may well learn more quickly if you concentrate on a single one. But if you are a language guzzler, like me, then timing tricks like these will help keep you satiated, while still squeezing the most from your lessons.

An ambulance attending an emergency; driver speaking in the window

Speaking tips from the emergency room

There’s no doubt about it: speaking can be hard, especially when you’re beginning in a foreign language.

You have all the usual mental juggling of remembering vocabulary and grammar. But on top of that, there’s the social pressure of performing live. In the heat of the moment, it’s too easy to panic and gibber. Neither of those will help you make yourself understood!

Now imagine that performance pressure, but in a matter of life or death. How would you, as a beginner in a foreign language, cope with making an emergency services call abroad?

This is exactly the kind of situation that research linguists Jennifer Gerwing and Jan Svennevig have aimed to unpick in their research. Much of their work has involved exploring real-life exchanges between native and second-language speakers in healthcare settings. But it is a piece of experimental research, recently presented at a conference exploring second language use, which really stirs the linguistic imagination.

Playing dummy

The experiment paired seventeen native English speakers with seventeen speakers of English as a foreign language. The first-language English speakers played the part of operators; their counterparts played callers. Those callers were to imagine that a friend (actually a resuscitation dummy!) had fallen unconscious. As a result, they would be making a call to emergency services. The operators were to instruct the callers in placing the dummy in the recovery position. The catch? They would be speaking entirely in English. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, outcomes varied greatly, from great success to darkly comic dummy disaster. But the experimental scenario allowed the researchers to identify, compare and evaluate speakers’ strategies for making themselves understood. Specifically, Svennevig mentions three speaking strategies for helping to get your point across. The emergency call scenario may be specific, but all language learners can gain some insights from these three approaches.

simply speaking

Operators got their point across more clearly when they avoided complicated, technical or low-frequency vocabulary. They’re also the kind of words you’re less likely to know as a learner – the ones that frustrate you so much when you search for them and they’re simply not there. Don’t get frustrated – look for a simpler word instead.

Generalising what you mean to say can help: don’t know the word for ‘bungalow’? Say ‘small house’ instead. Forgotten the word for ‘fork’? What about ‘thing for eating’? Language hacker extraordinaire, Benny Lewis, takes this to the ultimate level with his ‘Tarzan speak’ method for making yourself understood as a beginner!

Break it down

We tend to speak in long, meandering sentences in our own language. We use connecting words, relative clauses, and all manner of other complex means to make our speaking fancy. This is counter-productive when ease of communication is the name of the game. Subsequently, operators found that breaking complicated instructions down into chunks helped callers no end.

You can harness the power of this as a learner, too. Resist that urge to try and translate word-for-word what is in your head. Instead, break it down! Don’t try to construct ‘I need the key to room 224 so I can go and fetch my bag’. It’s much easier to slow down and make that ‘I need the key. Number 224. My bag is in the room’.

Reformulate

This is the linguistic equivalent of covering your bases. If it doesn’t work the first time, say it in another way. Each time, you’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll be understood.

Saying things in a different way can add context and reduce misunderstandings. Why stop at “I’d like a glass of water?” Try “I’d like a glass of water. I’m thirsty. I need to drink”. That way, if you mispronounce or mangle one of those sentences, there are two others that the listener can use to grab your meaning. This is much better than the hopeless tourist technique of saying it once, then saying it louder!

Combo points

All three of these rules will aid communication on their own. In combination, though, the effects are cumulative. The magic of Svennelig and Gerwing’s experiment is that the researchers could actually measure these effects. For instance, operators using none of these strategies failed to get their instructions across at all. Those using just one had a 20% success rate. With two, comprehension levels reached 40% or so. But with all three, operators reached up to 60% efficiency in making themselves understood, despite quite basic language skills from the caller.

As a learner, you will find yourself in the role of caller, rather than the operator. But these three simple techniques still make a handy set of rules for not tying yourself in knots as a beginner speaker, whatever the scenario.

Statin’ the bleedin’ obvious?

Reading these three strategies, many will say that it’s just common sense. Isn’t it obvious that you’ll be better understood if you speak more simply? However, these techniques might not come as naturally as you think. After all, a whole experimental study showed that not everybody employs them automatically all the time.

As a language learner myself, I know how that performance pressure can overwhelm you. Situations take us over; we get swept away on a tide of speaking anxiety. Our beginner brains need some training in the subtle art of simplification.

So next time you feel at a loss for words, remember the emergency room – it may just save your (language) life.

This study was recently the subject of the excellent Norwegian radio programme Språkteigen, which deals with all things language-related. Thanks to Språkteigen for bringing the study, and the linguists behind it, onto my radar. The programme and podcast are highly recommended if you understand Norwegian!