Bilingualism That Goes Beyond Minds: The Impact on Body Language

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

If you put two students who speak the same language and are starting to learn the same second language in a room and forbid them from speaking their mother tongue, what will improve in three days?

Their body language skills.

This might be a joke, but it just shows the importance of body language to our daily communication: whatever we cannot communicate with speech, we fill in with gestures, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.

If you are bilingual or a polyglot, you might have had this experience: Your feel like a different person when switching to a second language. As you code-switch with your words, your body behaves differently, as if it has automatically employed a different operating system that has a new set of defaults.

We have all heard stories and tips from those who have travelled across the world: The English show less emotion. Latinos are passionate. Refrain from physical touch when you address the Japanese. Be liberated with your gestures when talking to an Italian. Certain languages seem to have connections with how these languages are used, and we as speakers, inherit the language’s personality, all without consciousness.

This change in body language when bilinguals switch their spoken languages is backed up by studies. An academic paper that was published in 2019 investigated gesture patterns of second-generation Turkish bilinguals living in the Netherlands. When switching between Turkish, a higher-gesture language, and Dutch, a lower-gesture language, the bilingual participants showed different tendencies and rates of using gestures, which are consistent with the behaviours of monolingual speakers in each of the two languages. Even though Dutch is the majority language in the society, participants have maintained the cross-linguistic differences and did not adapt to the habits of the dominant culture when speaking Turkish. This demonstrated that gesture rate correlates with speaking in the language that one speaks. The authors of the paper concluded that language and gesture go hand in hand.

Other studies have shown that bilingualism affects both the mind and bodies. Researchers discovered that some motions may employ the same brain regions as the actual activities they relate to in the formation of language. Moreover, experiments found that when bilingual participants read the same information written in their first and second languages, their facial muscles showed different relaxation and contraction patterns. The same smile, when reacting to words in different languages, could (and maybe should) be interpreted differently.

Due to the difference in how non-verbal communication is performed and interpreted in different languages, some scholars advised that body language should be proactively involved in language learning and more importantly, teaching. They recommend that language teachers should try to teach non-native students not only what is grammatically well-formed or correct but also what is socio-pragmatically and socio-semiotically appropriate. Consciously adjusting one’s body language when speaking a different language is not only an effective way of avoiding miscommunication but also a faster route for language learners to blend into the community.

However, in the recent years, there emerged another voice calling for attention and bashing the conscious code-switching in body language. In the paper published by University of California Speaking Bodies: Body Bilinguality and Code-Switching In Latina/O Performance, the author sees the act of minority language speakers purposely changing their body language to that of English in order to fit in as a sign of imbalanced social power dynamic and invisible oppression. As a young, mixed-race kid, she recalls visiting her father’s Irish American relatives and making an effort to appear more White than Latina through body language. “Identity is performed,” she wrote, “power is enacted through bodies.” She further added, “By looking specifically at the way in which the body uses gesture, movement, and language to switch between and across codes, this density of cultural knowledge and the construction of identity can be sifted through layer by layer.”

In conclusion, bilingualism affects speakers’ body language and vice versa. Being bilingual, some are unconsciously affected by this mind-body correlation without awareness, while others purposely switch their body language to achieve effective communication. Some consciously resist code-switching to protect their mother tongue’s identity and cultural memory. To our bilingual and multilingual readers, what do you do? When options are there, do you fight it or go with the flow?