Gestures are the everyday movements we use to support our spoken communication or to convey non-verbal messages, for example “come here”. Not all gestures mean the same all over the world. Some supposedly harmless gestures can be downright offensive in other cultures. Many people would be aware of this when visiting a foreign country.
Personally, I would count myself amongst the people who realize such differences. Nevertheless did I not fully reflect my teaching regarding this assumption during one of my lessons with the Lao teachers. This was the group of beginners who wanted to learn a little bit of English to be able to communicate with foreigners.
Every day I taught 50 minutes of English to this group of Ban Phang Heng Primary School teachers. Some of them already knew some English words and knew how they could use their limited vocabulary to try to express their thoughts.
One day I fell into the trap of which I foolishly had thought I would never even come close to. We were talking about new vocabulary, including the words “leave home” and “get home”. I noticed that some of the teachers in my group had problems with those two expressions. Therefore, I talked about each of them for a while, also mentioning what one might do when one “gets home” or ”leaves home”. While explaining, I was always moving my hands, showing the students the difference between “get home” and “leave home”. After a while – they had taken some time to discuss the matter in Lao – they seemed to agree that they all had understood what the new words meant.
For practicing the new vocabulary I then asked the group to write a few sentences about their daily routines. Afterwards, as the first teacher read her text aloud, I noticed that she had switched the expressions “get home” and “leave home”. When I asked her some questions about her routine, the confusion in the whole group was great.
The only way I could solve this problem was to act out what I was explaining. So I acted like I was getting ready to go to school and left the room saying “I leave home at 7:30 in the morning”. The same in reverse with the term “get home”. Through this demonstration the group noticed the misunderstanding, which I must have caused by using my “familiar” gestures when explaining the meaning of the two new expressions. That day, I learned that enacting words as real as possible is superior to relying on gestures in foreign language teaching.
Text by F. Frister