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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Pay attention to non verbal communication when we teach in multiethnic classrooms

By Fonseca Monsalve RuizSpecial to CSMS MagazineCommunication is so important that even pregnant women talk to their babies even when they are still in their wounds.  Having this conversation with the baby is a form of establishing a relationship and trust.  Nevertheless, when the baby feels the touch and caress of the mother it is a nonverbal communication that the baby appreciates and understand as well.  Not all the time we have to talk to let the other person know what we want.  Just with the action and gestures of our body we can express what we want to say.            For this reason, it is significant that we learn as much as we can about other non-verbal communications of other cultures.  In case we have a situation where the child is doing a sign or a gesture that we are not familiar with, then we can better understand and help him or her.  I experienced a situation where I had to translate to a Hispanic child who did not speak English.  The teacher brought him to see the principal because he could not keep his hands to himself.  The boy was crying and told me that he did not know why he was brought to the office.  I told him that it was because he was embracing and putting his arm around the shoulder of the other children and that was not allowed at the school.  He told me that what he was doing was not wrong and that he was just talking to his friend.  I understood him right away.  He was speaking to his friend but at the same time he was embracing him. Coming from a Hispanic culture as well, I sympathized with him because we have a lot of physical contact when we talk with friends.  This does not mean that we are harassing anyone or that we are being disrespectful.  Therefore because I knew his culture I was able to explain to the principal the reason why he was behaving like that.  I also explained to the child that he could not do that any more, at least not at the school.  Not understanding different nonverbal behavior can get someone in a lot of problems because what is good for someone could be bad for others. Another problem that can arise when we do not understand the nonverbal behavior of another culture is eye contact.  In Hispanic countries, children are taught not to look at the person’s eyes when they are talking to them because this is considered disrespectful.  So children grow up with that cultural education.  When families move to United States children suffer because the culture is different here.  For example, if the teacher talks to the child he or she would not look at him or her because the child was taught that this was disrespectful.  On the other hand, the teacher would say that the child does not have good manners because he or she does not make eye contact.            ESOL students might have difficulty understanding a new culture’s gesture especially if they are in an early age.  Children at an early age are learning a new language, to have long conversations and to learn about different cultures.  These are enough challenges for them to learn; and on top of it, they have to deal with all of these hand signals that they see around them.  If they dare to ask what that hand signal means they will think that it is something universal and they will try to do it without really knowing when it can be applied and thinking that everyone will understand what they mean.  Moreover, one hand signal can have a different meaning in another country; confusing more and complicating the child’s understanding.  However, children may be used to their own cultural gesture; so when they see a hand signal they are used to seeing, they will feel comfortable. America as well as other countries has its own hand signals, too.  Since centuries ago, Native Americans have a habit in using a very popular hand signal among children and adults.  It is the one they use to greet people.  It is the famous “hou” which means hello.  This signal is illustrated by raising the arm up to the ear while they say “hou”.  Here are a few hand signals that are very common in United States:

  • Crazy – raise the hand to the ear and with the index finger going in circles
  • Money – twitching the thumb and the index finger
  • Hungry or good – rubbing the belly with the hand
  • Calling someone – with the palm up and moving the index finger toward me
  • Asking for a ride – the hand closed with the thumb pointing toward the direction where he or she wants to go
  • Yes –moving the head forward and backward
  • No – moving the head to the sides
  • Peace – the index and the middle finger up in the closed hand
  • Good – the thumb up

 In addition here are other hand signals from other countries:

  • Stingy – knocking the elbow with the fist
  • Do not care – moving the shoulder towards the front


  • Contempt – moving the lips to one side
  • Intelligent – tapping the temple
  • Greet people (Japan) – bowing
  • Greet people (Spain) – kissing on both cheeks

 Therefore, it is important to know that people do not only communicate when they are talking. They also communicate with hand signals and it does not have to be a deaf person.  We also have to be careful when we do a hand signal, especially when we are in a foreign country because it could be something offensive and impolite.Also see Creating culture diversityMake our society a better placeWhat we need to teach our ESOL students about Nonverbal communicationIndian Culture: Vibrant and thought-provokingRole of alternative languages in our society Note: Fonseca Monsalve Ruiz is an ESL teacher in Monroe County, Georgia. She wrote this piece exclusively for CSMS Magazine. This week, we’ll have a whole series on non-verbal communication.

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