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Friday, October 24, 2014

Part Three: Non-Verbal Language

There’s a joke that goes: “what do you call a Spaniard with his arms crossed?” After a few seconds of dramatic pause, the punch line comes: “mute!” Non-verbal language, the use of the body, the face, and gestures made with one or both hands, is inherent to our (Spanish speakers) communicative activity.

A donde fueres haz lo que vieres” (roughly equivalent to “when in Rome, do as the Romans”) is a saying that, besides being a great example of the archaic future subjunctive tense, illustrates the important role that observation plays in language immersion learning.  

This body language is so important that the reputable British newspaper The Guardian even published an entire series of articles teaching the most common gestures in Spanish.

Learners can decrease the possibility of cultural misunderstandings that can arise from the use of certain hand gestures through careful observation. The internet can also lend a helping hand if you do a little navigating there to find the correct meaning of some of Spain’s most common movimientos manuals.

Spanish Gestures

Some time ago we discussed this type of confusion in reference to an image of a smiling ex President Bill Clinton with both hands raised in the form of horns (index and pinky fingers extended with the rest bent). Texans recognize the sign as a symbol of longhorn cattle. The gesture in Spain is an audioless equivilant of saying “¡cabrón!” to someone you don’t particularly like. The meaning of the hand sign however is transforming, especially among the hard rock community, in which it’s used to express musical passion.

In many Spanish speaking regions, asking for “un par” of something may not always imply “2” but rather a small amount, so it may be a good idea to reinforce the request by marking the number 2 with your index and middle finger…just remember that British people may find the gesture offensive if you make the sign with your palm facing inward.

When we like something, we make the OK symbol by joining the index finger and the thumb, leaving other three fingers semi-extended, but be careful with this one if you’re interacting with a Brazil or if you’re in Brazil, where the gesture is a reference to the final orifice of the digestive system, which is not, er, excessively elegant.

Keep in mind that it may not be very convenient to attempt to shake the hand of people of certain cultures of eastern Asia… and don’t even think about trying to give the traditional Spanish dos besos greeting to a Japanese woman!

This is all why we must remember the saying cited above, and before shifting our gestures to the contexts of other languages, it is vital to observe how the locals communicate.

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