Is being able to talk enough?


Why non-verbal communication skills are a vital element in our understanding and use of language 

Some years after I completed a French conversation course we went to France on holiday. My husband decided it was time for me to develop my French conversational skills by undertaking little tasks he would set for me. To start with, I had to order the drinks at a café; this went well. The next task was to go into the café to ask for the toilets. He primed me by telling me what I should say and what I might expect in reply.

So, I walked into the café, confident of my simple task, and asked the question: “Où est les toilettes?” Unknowingly, I had already made my first error – I had used a singular verb when it should have been plural. This communicated to the staff that I was not French. My accent probably also let them know I was English.

However, this was a minor problem compared with what happened next. The man replied to my question in a way that I was totally unprepared for: he said “Elles sont bouchées”, which means “They are blocked”. Initially, the effect on me was panic; he might as well have been talking Chinese. I left the café in a hurry, feeling upset and confused. My feelings of incompetence were exacerbated when my husband asked me what the man had said.

The long term impact, though, was to undermine my confidence in using my very limited French in other situations. As a result, I simply opted out of future attempts to communicate in French. It is very scary not being able to understand what people are saying, especially when it appears so easy for them.

Avoiding conversation

Children I have worked with for the past twenty years feel like this in everyday situations – but in their mother tongue, not a foreign language. These children can talk well and most people think they understand all that is said to them. Sometimes they do understand but at other times nothing anyone says to them makes sense. As a result, they feel panic, anxiety, frustration and anger; they develop ways of getting out of conversations rather than find themselves unable to understand what is going on or how they are expected to behave.

Such children are found in all walks of life, including children in mainstream education who have difficulties behaving appropriately, those who simply opt out of communication – elective or selective mutes or non-verbal children with severe autistic features – those with Asperger’s syndrome or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some stammerers and children with mental health problems. I have been told that the same behaviour is found in some dyslexics as well.

Our brains do not have the capacity to listen to every word spoken.It is relatively easy to put adults, even those who view themselves as good communicators, in situations where they will resort to inappropriate behaviours. But most adults can find other ways of dealing with confusing situations. For example, you can ask for help or communicate your confusion non-verbally (with a puzzled look or raised arms). In this way, you can get the speaker to adjust the message to make it easier for you to understand. Children with poor non-verbal understanding are unable to benefit in this way. They simply don’t understand why they can’t communicate effectively in all situations – they think everyone else is just talking.

So what is the problem? During my conversation course we had to listen to French radio for ten to fifteen minutes each night. It was thought that this would improve our understanding of French spoken at normal speed. But what I found was that trying to listen to people speaking at speed in French, without any other visual clues as to the context, made me shut off and feel a sense of frustration and failure at not being able to understand.

There were occasions when I could make some sense of what was being said, because two or three of the words were familiar enough for me to deduce the context of what was being said, such as social greetings or requesting food and drink. As these phrases had been practiced over and over in my French classes throughout secondary school, they were engrained in my memory. However, when even familiar words were put in a different context, or in an unfamiliar combination of phrases, I couldn’t make sense of them at all.

Clues to communication

To be able to make good sense of language, we need to understand the non-verbal clues, such as facial expression, body language and, importantly, the situational clues that combine to inform us about the context of what is being said. On top of this, we have to be able to pick out the important words; speech and language therapists call these “information-carrying” words. When I worked as a speech and language therapist twenty years ago, these information-carrying words were recognised as significant, but what I have discovered since then is that the non-verbal signals of stress, rhythm and intonation pattern draw our attention to those important words and also let us know which words we can ignore.

Going back to foreign language learning from the radio for a moment, think of the agony of hearing a mass of spoken information coming at you with no visual clues as to what the person is talking about. Our brains do not have the capacity or processing speed to listen to every word that is spoken.

Here is what you have to be able to do to make sense of a spoken message:

  1. listen to the words
  2. relate them to the other words in the message. For example, the grammatical position and relevance
  3. remember the words in the correct order to be able to understand what is being said. For example, “Put the book on the box” means something completely different to “Put the box on the book’”
  4. decide what the message means.

What we actually have to do is identify the information-carrying words and then, through our knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, piece together the likely meaning of the sentence. When learning a foreign language, the difficulty is that, unless you are taught to pick up the non-verbal signals of stress and intonation patterns – which in French, for example, are completely different to English – then you will not know which words to listen to in order to get an idea of the topic and which words will help you understand the message accurately and in full.

Impact on children

The children that I work with are mostly able to talk but have no idea that we are using non-verbal clues from the people present and the situation, that we relate these to past experience and combine all this with information from the prosodic clues (such as stress, rhythm, intonation and volume) to make good sense of the words. Even adults don’t realise they are doing this until it is pointed out, because it happens in our subconscious.

Children with poor non-verbal understanding listen to every word we say and the outcome is similar to the experience I had when learning French – sometimes they can make sense of what is being said but in a new or slightly different situation, they are unable to process non-verbal information effectively and suddenly things start to happen that they don’t expect. Another difficulty that compounds their confusion is that they cannot predict well either.

Some situations make sense to the children – the familiar situations that they have experienced over and over again. But when it goes wrong, they have no idea what is going on. It doesn’t matter how many times parents or teachers tell them how to behave better, the message doesn’t get through because it is usually given when the child is stressed. Try listening to important information when you are stressed and see how well you can remember it.

Throughout their childhood, these children have many negative experiences of communication which sap their confidence in their own ability. If your confidence is taken away, it is hard to communicate and you are more than likely to opt-out of the conversation – for children who are still learning how to communicate, the impact is even greater.

It is easier for these children to only talk on a subject they know about; this may be seen as a lack of imagination by some. The vocabulary and level of interest around this preferred topic grows and grows so that soon they are able to make sure they can dominate a conversation about the topic they choose. This performs another function which is to stop others from asking awkward questions that they can’t answer.

Here is what you will see in children as a result of their inability to make sense of non-verbal information; they may do some or all of the following:

  • not look at you while speaking or listening, or only do so occasionally
  • be happy to give information, as long as it is a topic of interest to them
  • give little information in free conversation. You have to work hard to extract relevant information from them
  • have a monotonous or limited intonation pattern
  • use bland and/or exaggerated facial expressions and body language.

They may also resort to one or more of the following strategies to get out of a conversational situation:

  • dominating conversations
  • opting out of conversation (shutting down). They might pull their hood over their face. Others might be diagnosed as selective or elective mute
  • distracting others
  • using verbal abuse or being very verbally aggressive in style and language
  • being physically aggressive – damaging objects or hurting people
  • fleeing from situations. They will run away with no fear or concern about safety.

As will be apparent, particularly if they adopt the penultimate strategy (and many do), these children are at risk of exclusion from school, rejection by their peers or family conflict. This is why so many children find entry to secondary school so difficult and often either self-exclude or have to leave as a result of a deterioration in their behaviour.

Professionals working in all spheres of children’s services, from early years to secondary level, will recognise the high incidence of the difficulties outlined in this article. The problems these difficulties can cause for the children concerned are profound. Non-verbal communication skills tell you what to say, whether to say it and when to say it, as well as how to behave. If you can’t do this, you may as well be living on another planet.

Further information

Sioban Boyce trained as a speech and language therapist in the 1970s and worked for nearly twenty years in the NHS, before setting up the communication/behaviour consultancy Not Just Talking. She is the author of Help your child communicate – from day one, Not Just Talking: Identifying non-verbal communication difficulties and Not Just Talking: Helping Your Baby Communicate – from Day One:

Sioban Boyce
Author: Sioban Boyce

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  1. Hi,
    I have been working with a child who has speech delay he is 4 years old we took help from other services we made IEP for him we can not get him to answer any questions or get any sort of expressive language out of him can you please and give some suggestions.


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