How to learn a language: Language without words

The roots of communication between homo-sapiens dates back a fair bit further than reliable evidence that exists, or has existed and been passed down. The fact is that a large majority of the ‘knowledge’ of languages comes from indirect evidence and in no small part inference.

Numerous studies have been conducted and brilliant scholars have dedicated their lives to pursue these roots of communication. A reality that must be known is that we have likely lost more knowledge over the years than could ever be found. Research by a linguist, Shigeru Miyagawa at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts suggests that human language is rooted in two different communication systems, birdsong and monkey cries. He calls his study an ‘integration hypothesis.’

This study focuses on how humans began using ‘verbal’ or ‘audible’ communication. Other studies show that a large part of communication between humans and animals alike, is not exactly a language that can be written down and sent in an email. The language of gestures, movements, the eyes and the face or the language of the body without words is even older. Body language is essentially the most powerful and clearest tool of communication that humans have ever possessed.

How is this important when learning a language? Languages are relatively easy to learn how to read, write and speak. Many of us have learned one or more languages in school without ever learning or consciously thinking about body language. Let’s think about that together. How many times have you misunderstood the tone of a text message? How many times did a communique get interpreted differently by different readers? How often do we mistake a person’s tone over the phone?

Ever since people began traversing the globe they have carried and transferred and exchanged their knowledge, culture, customs and language along with everything associated with language. This is evident when people from places spread far apart understand a common gesture without ever having communicated in any other way other than that gesture. It can be jarring when a tourist misunderstands a local’s hand gesture or nod as rude or dismissive. This is a situation where that particular body language is not common or in some cases means something completely different to the tourist. Now be clear that this piece of writing is not conveying how to use commonly accepted body language, or about what has widely become known as good or professional body language.

When you are attempting to learn a new language, if you have the opportunity to watch native speakers communicate. Go out of your way to understand their body language, right from hands, and body posture to the smallest movements of the eyes. It is very important. You do not have to travel across the globe to understand why this is important. How people use their movement and bodies to communicate differs vastly from region to region. I would go so far as to say that, with sufficient data, you may even be able to approximate a person’s specific region in India, by just the way they stand in relation to others around them.

If you are able to mimic or at least understand what is behind each of these movements, including the seemingly subtle ones, you are well on your way to understanding the roots of the language and will be able to communicate more effectively within a shorter span of time. This does not require a complex study on how to understand body language. Nor does it require a full understanding of the history of body language and what various combinations of body language could possibly mean. All that needs to be done is observe with an open mind and a little bit of curiosity.

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