How to learn a language: The Nod

Having skimmed the surface of how vital physical communication is in relation to learning a language let us explore this a little more.

Let’s look at one part of the body. The head. In many parts of the world lifting your head up and down is a sign of agreement or acknowledgment, a yes. This would be called a nod. The more you agree with someone the more likely you are to nod faster or more indicatively to that person. In much of India, the way we agree can be a sort of bobble-headed motion. The more in agreement we are the quicker the movement. Yes, this example has been laughed at and talked about the world over on innumerable occasions.


In Zambia, Africa, the more you agree the more prolonged your nod is, the chin is lifted higher in proportion to agreement. In situations where the party is very agreeable, the nod travels further than just the head and becomes a motion of the whole body. In Maldives, a subtle almost dismissive nod suffices, even if agreement is at its extreme. Towards the East, a nod can include more of the neck and becomes almost a bow of agreement.

Note; that we are not exploring the various other meanings of nods and how they could indicate various and varying communication. The focus for this part is solely on agreement.

Why is such a simple part of language a focus for this piece? It is easy enough to understand that a nod is a yes. The world having become as connected as it has, this is not new or even interesting information. It is common knowledge.

What should be thought about here is the difference and the reason for the difference in the way agreement is shown at either one of its extremes, to agree a little or to agree completely. Why?

If I were to spend an evening with my extended family and were to only nod up and down in agreement it would take ten minutes before someone asked me, “Is everything okay?,” or, “Do you understand what I mean?” Even though everyone present is aware that the up and down nod means yes, it still would seem strange to them.

Inversely if I were to spend an evening with South African miners and kept using my ‘bobble head’ Indian nod I would be made fun of. Even though, the largest population of Indians outside India resides in South Africa! Even though every South African miner knows that is how some Indians nod.


Having said that, those that are culturally sensitive or who have had exposure to the differences are usually not bothered at all. They see the various nods as agreement and nothing more, nothing less. In fact, very little thought is given to it. Surely, most of you that read this have given your nods very little thought.

It is now no longer a question of understanding what that movement means. It is about how the nod is perceived by different cultures. Despite knowledge that it is agreement, there exists a boundary that has been set in place by centuries of cultural programming. Not one that needs to be broken or changed, it needs to be understood.

Now let us turn back to learning languages. There are many out there who have painstakingly learned entire languages, how to read them, how to write them and even delved deep into the history of the language. Yet some are unable to connect on a human level to the native speakers. Those that are very successful at communicating well have gone one step further and understood the importance of body language. They have allowed the culture to become a part of the knowledge they have of that language.

If we are able to understand the subtleties of simple non-verbal communication it allows us to cross that boundary and use this body language to assimilate and learn by practicing. Try it out, the next time you are amongst a group of people who are from a culture that is different to yours. It will help in understanding each other better.

If you like this write-up, and would like to know more, stay tuned for the next in this series. Happy reading.

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