Is someone who speaks 'English' and 'Body language' bilingual?



Bonsoir mesdames et messieurs. Bienvenue à ce soir.

And that is the limit of my year 8 French. Did I do good job? I am aware of the language, I can rattle off a few words. I may even be able to order a croissant in French. But can you call me bilingual? Do I really understand and have an appreciation for the language? The answer is simple – I don’t.

For me, saying I am bilingual because I speak body language, is like saying I am bilingual because I have some grade 8 French. The truth is that body language is simply an indicator, a symptom if you like of the true underlying language of human group and team behaviour.

Since we were very small children society demands that we work in teams. From playing groups, to sporting teams, from family units to a group of friends we react and interact with other people.

Yet when are we taught how to do this? Is working in teams slipped in as a subject between maths and Geography? I think Mark Twain said it best when he said “everyone talks about the weather but nobody every does anything about it”. Understanding the behaviour of others is exactly the same – we talk about it a lot, and we expect it, but nobody actually teaches us how to do it.

There is no doubt that being able to read and understand body language is a useful step toward understanding the behaviour of others – just as we have to complete year 8 French to eventually become fluent – so too we need to be able to see and recognise the conscious and unconscious movements and postures known as body language by which feelings and behaviours are communicated.

But how do we come truly bilingual? What is the secret to truly understanding other people? Often people spruke about their expertise in body language. You know, if a politician or celebrity plays with their ears or nose while speaking, then they are lying, or if their eyes dart to the left they are tapping into childhood memories. That sort of thing. But there’s a lot more to it, and in fact there is still so much to be discovered.

Modern neuroscientists have recently discovered a great deal about the human brain, and more specifically the “social brain”. They have new insights into how a lifetime’s worth of experiences actually wires us for certain deeply rooted emotional responses to threats and opportunities.

This influences our behaviour, and by extension our body language. But it’s far from a complete science, and also one that many see as also having been co-opted by motivational speakers and quacks.

So many factors such as our core personality, whether we are introverted or extroverted, stable or anxious, our IQ, our EQ all play a role in the behaviour that we put out there, including our body language.

Dr Meredith Belbin of Cambridge in the UK, created a widely used behavioural model and profiling tool, The Belbin Model, that describes and measures 9 major clusters of human behaviour. It is used by corporate, military, government and sporting organisations to actually measure and work with human behaviour.

These Belbin roles fall into action, social and thinking oriented behaviours. People have a unique bandwidth of strength across these behaviours and display natural, manageable and least preferred behavioural roles influenced by many internal and external factors. The factors range from sub-conscious drivers in the core limbic system of our brains, through to a lifetime of external environmental factors and influences unique to each person.

So on this basis, me and for that matter anyone else, saying that I’m truly bilingual because I speak English and body language, is like me claiming to be bilingual just because I can order a croissant in French.

In reality there is a lot more to it.

To become truly bilingual in French would take many years of dedication, hard work and immersion in the culture.

Similarly, for me to genuinely claim “bilingual status” in body language and behaviour, I’d likewise need to put in some serious time and effort with a study of human behaviour.

Even then, so much of the science behind human behaviour, and by extension body language, is still under debate so even then I’d have to avoid being too smug about it.

Looking into human behaviour, including body language, can really help us to understand ourselves and others far better at school, work and within our own families. It’s something to aspire to, like being bilingual.

We just need to be aware that there’s a little more to it than thinking we know a few hand gestures or ear tugs.