Nonverbal Communication and|
Ton Nu Nhu Huong, M.Ed.
An exploration of nonverbal communication in second language
classrooms, with a discussion of implications for Vietnam.
English teaching and learning in Vietnam has gained
In this article, I will relate contemporary literature
great momentum during the last 15 years as a result of
on NVC with language teaching and learning, then
the open-door policy. Despite expanding economic and
attempt to propose this as a new method for teaching
commercial activities resulting in increased demand for
tertiary-level English learners in Vietnam. The research
English, the quality of English teaching and learning has
will be divided into three parts: first, general views on
not necessarily improved. According to Asiaweek in
NVC and NVC in language teaching; second, learning
1999, the quality of education and training at Vietnam
styles adopted by Asian or Vietnamese learners with ref-
National University ranks 74th out of 79 of the best
erence to NVC; and finally, implications for Vietnamese
national institutions in East Asia. Furthermore, in his
teachers and learners of English. I was limited by the
1996 survey, Tran indicated that only 35-37 percent
dearth of materials directly discussing Vietnamese learn-
of graduates from a foreign languages university are
ers’ NVC in their communication, so have mostly used
discussions and findings about communication patterns
This situation might be explained as due to a lack of
of Asians generally which I believe to be similar to
resources, modern facilities, high–quality courses, and so
on. From a teacher’s perspective, however, the reality
may be that one of the causes is also the quality of teach-
General Views on
ing. Even though the number of English teachers is
increasing, teaching quality, in terms of methodology, has
posed a problem to learning outcomes. These are the
According to Schneller (in Lynch), since the 1950s
grounds for my choice of topic in this article.
more attention has been paid to NVC because of the
realization that verbal language is only “one of the vari-
Context and Purposes of the Article
ous human communication channels” (p. 120). As esti-
mated by Birdwhistell (in Condon and Yousef), more
Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has been
than 60 percent of human communication is carried
introduced in English classrooms in Vietnam, but little
out through nonverbal language. Therefore, NVC is seen
research has been done on how effective that approach
as undeniably important in communication, either with-
has shown itself to be. Even less attention has been paid
in or across a culture.
to bilateral interaction between teachers and learners,
What is nonverbal behavior? In this paper, the
especially as manifested through nonverbal language on
terms NVC and NV behavior are used interchangeably.
both sides. From my own experiences and observations
Harrison (in Wolfgang) defines it as “behaviour that tran-
as a teacher of English at Hue College of Sciences and
scends spoken or written words” (p. 159). Gallois and
Humanities, working with Vietnamese learners’ particu-
Callan consider NVC as a multi-channel medium of feel-
lar learning styles and watching students struggle for
ings such as identity, emotions, and attitudes through
words to express themselves more effectively, I have
voice, face, and body (pp.53 -54). Several attempts have
drawn certain conclusions. Why do we not try to use
been made at researching this concept, and a majority
have found these forms of NVC (Morain, in Valdes):
nonverbal communication (NVC) in general and body
• Body language, including movement, gesture, posture,
language in particular as a method for strengthening or
facial expression, gaze, touch, and distancing.
reinforcing verbal communication?
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• Object language, comprising signs, designs, artifacts,
it clear that people cannot shed their culture, nor erase
it, as it is the “organised body of rules, allowing for indi-
• Environmental language, including color, lighting, and
vidual differences” concerning customs, institutions, val-
ues, languages, nonverbal behavior, arts, and more.
In language teaching, the role of NVC has loomed
Research has been done on Asians’ styles of learning,
large. Mehrabian (in Wolfgang) has shown that in teach-
but few such studies have been conducted on
ing,“a more frequent use of gestures has been associat-
Vietnamese. Fortunately, the results show a great simi-
ed with a more affiliative classroom style which elicits
larity between Chinese and Vietnamese learners, as both
liking and cooperation from others” (p. 177). He also
are influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism. Lewis
analyzes how a teacher’s facial expressiveness (such as
has observed that Vietnamese are “good listeners,
smiling) attracts more attention and responses from stu-
expecting speakers to be clear and logical,” and, as a
dents than her speech (p. 161). Keith, Tornatzky, and
result of French colonization, rather “well-versed in
Pettigrew also find that the more a teacher uses the
French-style debate” (p. 376). Additionally, Vietnamese
blackboard, the less effective a class becomes due to an
learners belong to a high-context culture. According to
insufficient amount of NVC. Grant and Henning (cited
Bennett, people from high-context cultures depend
by Schneller, in Lynch) observe that 82 percent of a
more heavily on nonverbal and contextual cues than on
teacher’s messages come via NVC, especially expres-
verbal language. This explains why Vietnamese students
sions of feelings (p. 124). Witt and Wheeless find that
employ much NVC in interaction among themselves or
with their teachers. Vietnamese learners are observed
when teachers engage in nonverbally immediate behav-
by Spencer as hiding their feelings of confusion, igno-
ior, students are more satisfied and learn more. They
rance, fear, shyness, pleasure, or anger behind their facial
argue that immediate behaviors adopted by a classroom
expressions, such as smiling. Asian learners, as influ-
teacher, such as communicating from a close distance,
enced by their parents, tend to be reserved rather than
smiling, engaging in eye contact, and making gestures,
expressive; therefore, they tend to be passive and non-
increases the learners’ commitment level. Discussing
verbal in class (Park). We must also mention the Asian
learning styles, Stefani has observed that NVC is a subtle
idea of “face,” which is highly conformed to by most
form of culture that can “actively impede the learning
Vietnamese. The idea of gaining or losing “face” often
process” (p. 352).
means, for example, that students do not want to initiate
With regard to CLT, at the practical classroom end,
where a majority of activities include group work and
Nowadays, when a Western CLT approach has been
pair work, NVC proves to be quite necessary. The above-
widely introduced into English education in Asian coun-
mentioned reports show that NVC plays an irreplace-
tries, many challenges are facing learners and teachers.
able part in classroom atmosphere and successful learn-
Nunan reports that task-based language teaching has
ing. Hence, teachers should be more aware of the role
“influenced syllabus design, materials development, and
NVC plays in teaching, and should try to turn the uncon-
language teaching methodology” (p. 280). Watkins finds
scious use of NVC into a conscious one to make the
that Chinese students cannot benefit much from group
class a more effective learning environment.
work strategies due to the present large class sizes
(about 40-50 students). The same truth is found regard-
Learning Styles, Communicative Method-
ing learners of English throughout Vietnam, even though
ology, and Nonverbal Communication
Sullivan (cited by Park) has found the opposite to be
true in college classes where students respond in chorus
How would this work in Vietnam? Before attempt-
In my opinion, because the Western
ing to apply NVC theory to our teaching, we need to
approach wants to improve skills rather than cognitive
consider the question of learning styles, and how Asian
ability, CLT will be more applicable in Asian contexts if
or Vietnamese learning styles might interact practically
modifications are made. To make CLT more effective,
with NVC in the classroom.
teachers need to change their traditional way of staying
Students’ preferred learning styles are subject to the
motionless behind a desk at the front; they should move
influences of their home culture. Culture shapes human
around the room and participate in group or pair activi-
beings’ styles of learning, as found by Park:“Research has
identified cultural differences in the learning styles of
Contrary to Bennett,Asian countries are classified by
various ethnic groups” (p. 1). Hall (in Wolfgang) makes
Argyle as non-contact cultures, in which people make
— 31 —
more restricted use of gestures and less use of facial
Timid as they are in using NVC in oral communica-
Regarding language teaching, because
tion,Vietnamese learners unconsciously do use it when
direct eye contact between teachers and students is not
they strive for words to communicate with the teacher
often used, and because speaking loudly in class is con-
or their peers. My own observations in class have
sidered improper or attention-getting, there are difficul-
shown that students tend to rely on certain gestures—
ties in evaluating whether communication between
such as waving hands in the air or twirling a pen while
teachers and learners is going smoothly or not. For
gathering information—or certain facial expressions—
example, after finishing an explanation, a teacher tends
such as grimacing or frowning. As for teachers, the more
to look at students closely to see if they get the point or
they use NVC, the more vivid their lessons become, and
not. But it is hard to tell, because he does not receive
the more students like them.
enough eye-contact response or head-nodding from stu-
“Studies confirm that students’ positive ratings of learn-
dents to confirm understanding or interest. Questions
ing, willingness to talk, trust and motivation are affected
from students are also rare in non-contact cultures, since
by teachers’ behaviours and how these behaviours are
students get embarrassed if their loud voice catches the
perceived by students” (p. 352). She also finds that
class’s attention. Bilateral or reciprocal communication
immediacy behaviours such as smiling, face-to-face ori-
in class is thus left incomplete, showing the constraint
entation, removal of physical barriers, vocal variety, ges-
due to lack of NVC.
tures, and relaxation have been linked to positive learn-
Vietnamese and Chinese students are reported to
ing outcomes and motivation. This is also proved by
hold a great respect for teachers due to the traditional
Kelly (in Wolfgang) in his findings regarding junior high
teaching of Confucianism. The teacher is viewed in a
school students’ favor for teachers who use more ges-
popular Vietnamese proverb as a spiritual father: “Food
tures and smiles. Unfortunately, there has not been
and clothing from one’s parents, knowledge from one’s
much direct research on Vietnamese learners’ styles and
teacher.” The same observation is made by Donohoue in
how it relates to NVC.
an interview with some Vietnamese teachers:“A teacher
must be a model not only in behaviour but in knowl-
Implications for English Teachers
edge” (p. 20). With this sort of father-son relational atti-
tude,Vietnamese students do not dare either to critical-
ly question the teacher’s words or to interrupt teachers
Based on the above research and theory, I think that
for clarification in class. This helps explain why there is
NVC is quite necessary for better English teaching and
a lack of NVC, such as eye contact, head-nodding, or ges-
learning in Vietnam, especially at the tertiary level. The
tures, in the communication process between teachers
main challenge, however, is how to use NVC most effec-
and students in class. This poses a problem not only for
tively in relationship to Vietnamese learning styles and
international teachers in Vietnam, but also for
cultural backgrounds. Under the present circumstances,
Vietnamese teachers of English.
I would like to suggest that English teachers take the fol-
Like the Chinese and Japanese,Vietnamese learners
lowing steps to improve two-way communication
usually keep silent in class, but this does not mean they
between them and their students.
refuse to participate or that they do not know what to
say. In Asian culture,“silence is regarded as the ground
Seating and Spatial Arrangements
against which the figures of speech are perceived and
valued” (Bruneau and Ishii, in Samovar). Furthermore, in
the Chinese perception, a good student needs to obey
Sommer (in Wolfgang) has observed different effects
and listen to what the teacher says (Watkins). That is the
on classroom behavior due to different seating and spa-
way Vietnamese teachers perceive a good student as
tial arrangements: “Highest student participation has
well. This may cause reluctance among students in
been observed at the base of a U-shaped configuration
expressing themselves via the use of NVC.
whenever the teacher is seated opposite the ‘gap’ of the
Questions from students are rare in non-contact cultures,
since students get embarrassed if their loud voice
catches the class’s attention.
— 32 —
U” because in this position, teachers can exchange more
management and directions (Keith et al). If a teacher
mutual eye contact, promoting more student involve-
increases the use of gaze, she is able to reduce
ment with class activities (p. 175).
disruptions and maintain class order.
Vietnamese learners of English have to attend very large
In Vietnam, teachers and students are usually from
classes (about 50-60 students) and the normal seating
the same cultural background, so both sides are aware of
arrangement is fixed row by row with a teacher’s desk
what gestures and face or eye movements are suitable in
facing the class. Therefore, both teacher and students
the classroom context. If teachers are pioneers in this,
often find it hard to communicate face-to-face with each
students will be influenced because they consider their
other, a difficulty felt especially when teaching the four
teachers to be models to imitate. Hence, class interac-
skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
tion will improve and learning outcomes will be better.
In my opinion, classes should be broken into two or
three groups, each taking a turn at participating in these
Use of Gestures
subjects. Then students would be able to choose their
own seats and have more contact with the teacher. The
Since they do not have enough ability to communi-
teacher needs to stand in front of her desk to make stu-
cate verbally solely in the target language, our students
dents feel more involved in the class. When possible,
often feel uncomfortable and turn unconsciously to ges-
teachers should stand or move among students during
tures. Vietnamese English teachers should make use of
activities. This would encourage more student interac-
this tendency to model the use of gestures in expres-
tion because the position of the teacher would make
sion, especially to fill gaps.
Some useful examples
them feel closer and more included (cf. Brooks, Silvern,
include hand gestures to show directions and shoulder-
shrugging to express “I don’t understand” or “I don’t
Currently, it is almost always the case that students
know” or “I’m not sure.” Such gestures should be made
with higher ability choose the front rows, and the
known to students so that they can be more fluent in
teacher more often focuses on them. These students
their NVC, which will in turn build confidence in verbal
consequently attract more attention from the teacher
and their interaction counts for more. Teachers should
Teachers in Vietnam should be trained in how to use
consider this fact and perhaps adjust seating arrange-
NVC in their classes. Otherwise, they may persist in
ments in order to mix students of different ability.
their traditional thinking that students come to class and
study passively to gain knowledge, and that only teach-
Use of Face and Eyes
ers have a right to point, look, or smile in the classroom.
In reference to kinesthetics or body movement, pos-
Expectations on Teachers
ture, and face and eye movements, a teacher is able to
encourage student interaction by using this sort of NVC
In order for teacher-student interaction to improve,
himself. Therefore, a teacher should learn how to use
we should bear in mind that the effective use of NVC
body language as a means for engaging student partici-
relies greatly on the classroom context. Students or
pation in class discussions. For example, a teacher can
teachers coming from other cultural or ethnic back-
smile to encourage students to answer a question when
grounds should be trained to adapt to Vietnamese con-
they are still uncertain. Bayes (in Wolfgang) considers
texts. Only with this preparation will NVC be applied to
smiling to be an element that fosters a supportive and
non-threatening classroom climate. By looking a student
Another important factor is the expectations of stu-
in the eye, a teacher can understand whether she wants
dents toward teachers’ NVC. Hesler observed that teach-
to say something, does not understand a point, or shows
ers who conduct their class “among” students are
interest in the lesson. Once a teacher frequently makes
viewed more positively by students—as being warmer,
eye contact, students will become more familiar with it
closer, and more friendly.
Vietnamese students are
and they in turn will employ it to communicate back to
described by Nguyen as very studious and obedient, so
in their lessons teachers should be highly aware of their
Gaze is another NV behavior for effective classroom
— 33 —
skills, for instance, could be illustrated and shaped with
NVC in mind, both local and cross-cultural.
Another important point to be raised here concerns
The above-discussed issues are just some of the
class sizes and classroom facilities. Large class size has
many implications of NVC for teachers and learners of
been a long-running problem in Vietnam. To use NVC
English at the tertiary level in Vietnam. It is my hope
effectively, we need to reduce the number of students in
that the Vietnamese government will make a financial
each class so that teachers can move around more easi-
investment in these types of training and teaching
ly, gestures can be used more comfortably, and facial
But even in the absence of large-scale
expressions can be observed more clearly by both teach-
change, every teacher can make modest but meaningful
ers and students. Classrooms should be equipped with
methodology changes in her own classroom.
a video recorder and a television, and lessons on NVC
should perhaps be the first use made of them. For exam-
ple, a teacher can show, without sound, films of NVC
throughout the world. Students can observe and try to
From observations made by many linguists and psy-
fill in the information gaps. This type of activity will help
chologists, we moved from theories about and types
build up an awareness among students of the signifi-
of NVC to its importance in language learning. Then
cance of NVC in real-world communication.
research on Vietnamese learning styles was discussed
Use of Communicative Methodology
before a number of implications of NVC for English
teaching and learning in Vietnamese classrooms was
Littlewood asserts that Asian students do not like
only to listen and obey the teacher all the time. If a
This article’s discussion has shed light on the effec-
teacher knows how to initiate the process of communi-
tiveness of highlighting the use of NVC in the process of
cation, they will respond actively. I believe the same is
teaching and learning English in Vietnam. Vietnamese
true of NVC, which is an important consideration to
learners are hard-working and teachable, and constitute
bear in mind when using CLT methodology. I com-
a favorable audience for trying the above methods.
pletely agree with Chan that not every Western teaching
Equipped with knowledge and skills regarding NVC,
method can be successfully applied in Asian contexts (in
Vietnamese learners can employ it in their own learning
this case, China). Therefore, we should employ CLT with
processes. After graduation, in their jobs, a familiarity
reference to the Vietnamese cultural backgrounds of our
with NVC will help them feel more at ease in expressing
students, so that they can feel at ease when moving
themselves at international conferences, or in interact-
around the class to work in groups or pairs. For exam-
ing more naturally with native speakers of English.
ple, after dividing a class into small groups, teachers can
Future research in this area should focus on how
use gestures such as leaning forward to each group, nod-
Vietnamese cultural or psychological factors could help
ding the head to show interest, and moving from group
build up a more systematic use of NVC among learners,
to group or pair to pair.
on which patterns of NVC should be employed, and on
how much NVC language teachers might use in relation
to verbal expression.
As CLT gains ground in Vietnamese English class-
There have not yet been any textbooks written
rooms, it will not be difficult for English teachers to get
about the use of NVC in teaching English at the tertiary
used to the idea of using NVC in their reciprocal com-
level in Vietnam. The Ministry of Education and Training
munication with students. I am convinced that once the
(MOET) in Vietnam should invest more attention and
new method is started—as long as it is based on our cul-
resources to textbook design, especially those dealing
with the four basic skills. New books teaching speaking
tural traits, which shape students’ thought patterns and
Asian students do not like only to listen and obey the teacher all the time.
If a teacher knows how to initiate the process of communication,
they will respond actively.
— 34 —
learning styles—it will become quickly rooted and
and Obey?” ELT Journal 54 (1), 2000.
established, with many positive effects on the quality of
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