How important is translating nonverbal language?

Anyone traveling the globe will see all kinds of hand gestures, body movements and facial expressions, and hear any number of nuanced and varied pronunciations that they must wonder how useful their foreign language skills really are in making them understood.

A widely-quoted statistic asserts that 93 per cent of communication is nonverbal. This figure comes from a 1967 study by the social scientist Albert Mehrabian.

Findings like this throw the utility of learning a foreign language into question, suggesting that there is much more we need to learn in order to truly break the language barrier.

How much of communication is nonverbal really?

Despite this widely-quoted statistic being held as a universal truth, there is actually some debate as to whether it is accurate. Since we can communicate so much with letters, written messages, books and even articles like this one, how can communication really be 93 per cent non verbal? We wouldn’t really gain 93 per cent more information from a message spoken in person than from a text, would we?

An article in the Ubiquity journal argues that this ‘7 per cent rule’ is false, based on a misunderstanding of Mehrabian’s data. If you remove all verbal content from communication it would be very difficult to make yourself understood through gesturing alone, unless you know sign language.

Still, the real problem may lie in breaking communication down into percentages at all, because nonverbal communication definitely has a lot of importance, especially in speaking some foreign languages.

How different is body language across cultures?

Mehrabian broke nonverbal language down into body language and intonation. Across all cultures, these things differ, which means lack of body language awareness could lead to communication failures. Anne Merritt of the Telegraph says ‘Hand motions are culturally relative, and the wrong gesture can inadvertently lead to confusion or offence.’

In business meetings especially, this could be a huge problem. Merritt goes on to define ‘contact’ and ‘non-contact’ cultures, contrasting the UK and Northern Europe’s lack of physical touching with Latin America and the Middle East’s more hands-on alternative.

Some things as simple as counting on fingers are different across cultures, as evidenced by this exploration of international body language. Even how much importance people place on body language differs around the world. According to another study, Asians are more perceptive of body language than North Americans.

When it comes to business conversations, using the wrong gestures can have huge connotations. As Business Insider notes, a thumbs up will go down very well in Brazil as an affirmative signal, but in France it will signify a number one, and some countries it can even be a rude sexual expression.

The best way to ensure your body language is culturally appropriate is to enlist the help of a native interpreter who knows not just the language, but the culture of the country you are doing business in.

How to interpret tone of voice

Though learning international body language is important, another crucial element of spoken communication is tone of voice. This is particularly true of languages that rely on phonetic variation to denote meaning.

Take Mandarin, for example. As one of the fastest-growing business languages, Mandarin is becoming increasingly important in the globalised business world, and the key to unlocking the Chinese market. Yet the language works quite differently to its European-based cousins.

As AllSet Learning’s Chinese Pronunciation Wiki makes clear, the rules of Mandarin pronunciation are not made clear by its written markings, ‘you just have to know them’. There are four different tones any character can be pronounced with, each one completely changing the meaning of the word. True comprehension of Mandarin requires the kind of thorough knowledge of these tones you can only learn from long and intensive study, or from living in China for a long period.

Thankfully, for Mandarin and many other languages, there are professional interpreters that can help you. Get in touch today to find out more.

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