A Response to “Emotional Grammar”

Does your movement language impact your verbal one?

[This blog was inspired by NPR’s “All Things Considered”, you can listen to the radio segment or read the transcript here.]

When I think of language, I believe it encompasses not only the words that come out of our mouth, but the facial expressions, body motions, and tone and inflection of one’s voice when communicating.   Learning and mastering a foreign language would need all this to be able to communicate effectively.  The desire and passion to learn a new language will only take you so far, unless you become  completely engrossed in the culture and observe the expressions and mannerisms of the natives.  The times I was in Italy or even being around my Italy- born great-grandparents, always captivated me when I would observe them communicate.   It was not about the words but the hand gestures, the up and down of syllables, the kisses on each cheek, that got the message across.  With only basic knowledge of the language, I felt I could still understand what was being said by the emotions and movements portrayed.   I never thought of this as “emotional grammar” and I am not sure I even have the right idea of it, but I was surprised to hear that different emotions mean could mean different things in different cultures around the world.  I am not sure if I agree.

I have always thought of emotions and the movements associated with these emotions as universal.  That a woman with her body hunched over, teary eyes, and sobbing sounds coming from her mouth meant she was sad.  The reasons for her sadness could be that she is grieving or heard bad news, but she is still showing signs of sadness.  When teaching students social skills, I use feelings posters and cards that depict common emotions by just showing the faces associated with these emotions.  I understand each culture is different, and that every language varies greatly, even if the word sounds the same, but when I think of language it is the movement behind the words that gets the message across.

Watching a foreign movie, which is not something I enjoy, but when I do watch it, I choose not to read the subtitles because I love watching the motions and facial expressions.   I believe I get the “gist” of what is going on and understand the emotions being portrayed.   Listening to the opera, or even a foreign piece of music, is something I actually do enjoy, and despite not knowing what is being said, I can feel the emotions and am moved by the movements of the singer and dancers.   When I use to teach children with autism, as well as listen to my nephew who is a nonverbal child with autism, I could understand what emotions were being felt and what they were trying to communicate by their movements.  It may have taken some time to understand exactly what they were asking for or were excited about, but I knew jumping up and down meant excitement, tapping on my shoulder was a request, and hugging themselves was a self-soother.  It was not by their words that communicated to me their needs, it was the bodily actions and facial expressions that enabled me to understand them.

When I think of movement and language in my personal life, I feel I am able to read effectively what a person is trying to communicate, verbally and nonverbally.  I know my husband is excited or discouraged by his nonverbal actions, such as slumped shoulders or a hug.  With my students, I do a team-building activity in which they are not able to communicate verbally, but can any other way in order to get in a line with the prompt I suggest i.e. birthday.  I find it amazing to see the clever ways the students communicate with each other using their body and faces to express what is in their thoughts.  I can read the frustration or joy, from a student just by their movements as can the other students.   The students always share the difficulties of the challenged but are so empowered when they are successful and ALWAYS ask to do it again.

If I am on a run and my knees give out early, I begin to limp and will stop and stretch my knee and leg.  I do not need to say verbally, that I am experiencing discomfort but it is being shown by my bodily actions and facial expression.  When I cross a finish line, the smile on my face communicates the pride and joy I feel, yet when my body quickly bends over and I sink to the ground, I think if is evident one could see I am exhausted from the race.  Dancing with my husband at a wedding or on vacation, expresses the love we have towards each other.  Without having to say a word, the tender touch, the lovingly gaze, and our smile communicates to us, and to others, our love.

In yoga, I express my thoughts and feelings by my actions not words.  When I am standing proudly in warrior, my shoulders are back, my head straight forward, slight smile on my face, but when in pain, I tend to crinkle my forehead, legs may shake, and I do not think I have a “peaceful warrior” look on my face.  When in tree pose, my favorite pose, I hope that I am expressing love and gratitude again with a tall stance, smile on my face and joy in my eyes.  Yet, crow pose, a pose I have not yet mastered, my head drops, shoulders slump as soon as I hear or see that is the next pose.   Always, when our practice ends, sitting in cross legged position, palms facing each other, fingers pointing upwards and putting them to my forehead, then out to each other, with a smile on my face, the message of Namaste-comes across so powerfully and beautifully before we even speak the word.  The word, Namaste, may have different definitions culture to culture but the message is always the same.  Whether Namaste is said verbally or nonverbally, with just hands touching together, palms touching, and fingers pointing upwards it communicates a respectful greeting or farewell.

There are so many examples, a hug, a smile, a high-five, a frown, a pat on the back… too many to name, that show how we communicate to each other nonverbally.  I know the NPR study said there would have to be more research, but in my experience, from my observations of daily living, I believe language, without having to use words, is the most beautiful way to connect, and it is universal.  I also believe that if we are going to learn another country or learn a new language, take in everything associated with it, not just the word but the actions associated with the word when it is said.

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