• Beyond Words: Translating Gesture, Pitch, Loudness and Context •

“If you want a linguistic adventure go drinking with a Scotsman” starts one of Robin Williams’ iconic monologues. Some Scots speak English in a manner barely comprehensible to Americans, which is not all that funny, but Willliams performs in a nonsense brogue relying on gestures and emphatic stress, which is hilarious. It is how we perceive an unknown language. We rely heavily on stress, pitch, loudness and gesture to decipher meaning in our own language too. The data conveyed from sentence structure is only part of the whole communication.

Some kids do not decipher non-verbal cues with the ease most of us can. They may not get that an eye roll means frustration, or someone looking away might mean they’ve lost interest in your conversation. Operating in a variety of social circles can be extremely frustrating, as social rules change from one context to another. The eye roll might mean one thing when joking with your sibling, but quite another when directed at a teacher.   Kids are never explicitly taught non-verbal communication, because most pick it up intuitively. Teaching them to notice and translate social cues is part of pragmatic language therapy.


Watching people who speak another language is an opportunity to practice noticing. This can be on a voyage abroad, or at home watching TV. Kids get to be detectives, focusing on people talking to each other. You don’t know what they’re saying but can you tell anything about the way they are feeling or what they may be discussing? How might they know each other? What does their body language tell you? Where do you think they’re going? If you don’t understand what they are saying you can’t rely on the data passing back and forth, and are left completely with context, tone of voice, body language and the way people present themselves.

Foreign commercials work super well, as the music, action and voice give huge clues to what’s going on. Commercials have to get their message across quickly and visually.

My favorite method for demonstrating how much is conveyed without using words is to make up a gibberish language and use inflection, eye contact, and gesture to impart meaning. I did this when my kids were kindergarteners. There were only 2 recognizable words we could produce, ‘hockey puck’ and only once per utterance. The more serious and earnest we were the sillier it became. We were laughing in no time, with as much abandon as we do now when seeing videos of Robin Williams.