Each of the world’s languages, including English, is just one part of one mode of communication, which is verbal communication. Human communication is actually multi-modal. Multi means many, and modal refers to the mode or type of communication. What are all the modes of human communication, then, and what’s included in each mode? Let’s find out.
1. Verbal Communication
Language is one part of the first mode of communication which is verbal communication. Language includes everything from things like words, sentences, phrases, idioms, proverbs, and also includes actions like cursing and swearing, singing – basically, all the stuff people hear that comes out of your mouth that is part of a constructed system of communication. Words are a basic unit in languages, and the sounds we give to them have a shared meaning with all others who speak the same language. A second part of verbal communication is paralanguage.
Paralanguage focuses on the way something is said, rather than specifically what is said. Examples of this are rhythm, intonation, pitch, speed, tone of voice, volume, and voice inflection. The way you say something can indeed change its meaning. The specifics depend on the language and culture.
Verbal noises or utterances
A third type of verbal communication is the verbal noises or utterances that people make. These are sounds, but they’re not words. The sounds, however, do communicate meaning, but they’re not considered part of formal language. Examples of these sounds include sneezes, coughs, throat clearing, sighs, hiccups, tsk’s, sh’s or hushes, moans and groans, yawns, yells and shouts, laughs, giggles, and hums.
Use of silence
Another category is the use of silence. Yes, silence, or lack of speech, can communicate quite a lot. Silence in human communication can refer to long or short hesitations, pauses, and breaks in speech.
2. Written Communication
Now most of what I’ve talked about in verbal communication can also be expressed in the written word. Written communication, then, is a second mode of human communication. It consists of different writing systems, such as alphabets, syllabaries such as hiragana and katakana, Cyrillic – the script of many Slavic languages, hieroglyphs, pictographs, ideographs, and logographs such as kanji. These systems also include numbers and other mathematical symbols. Written communication comes in many formats, such as books, serial publications, blog posts, websites, fliers, pamphlets, notices, bulletins, advertisements, etc. And people can write novels or other type of books – physical and online, in addition to articles, essays, research papers, reports, white papers, text messages, tweets, emails, etc.
3. Visual Communication
A third mode of human communication is visual communication. This is a separate category from non-verbal communication, which we’ll get to later. The focus here is on imagery, but not on individual people. Images speak volumes. Examples are the wide variety of images, signs, and symbolism we see every day, including illustrations, drawings, photographs, paintings, statues, graphs, charts, symbols, silent videos, etc. Visual communication is an important, sometimes overlooked mode of communication. Just look at the word of art, which is not limited to visual communication, but certainly includes a lot of it!
4. Nonverbal Communication
A final type of human communication is non-verbal communication. This is a mode of communication that I find very interesting, because it is undervalued when we learn a second or foreign language, and because it can differ a lot depending on the language and culture it so often accompanies. Well, all modes of communication differ depending on culture, but non-verbal communication is visual, so it’s more obvious. You could argue that non-verbal communication is a type of visual communication, but I’ve separated them because verbal and non-verbal communication tend to go together.
Non-verbal communication includes gestures, facial expressions, oculesics (which includes eye-contact), posture and movement, proxemics, the use of silence, and other things like punctuality or being on time. In situations where people communicate face to face, some researchers believe that non-verbal communication comprises (or makes up) the largest percent of all human interaction. Albert Mehrabian, a 1960s researcher of body language, was the first to break down the components (or parts) of a face-to-face conversations. He found that communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and 7% words only. Experts today believe that 70 to 93% of all communication is non-verbal. This is why it can be so challenging to communicate over the telephone rather than face to face, especially if you’re communicating in a second or foreign language. It’s also why your teacher may require you to show your face in video conferences or classes like ZOOM. So much communication is missed without the non-verbal communication which usually compliments (or goes along with) verbal communication.
Let’s dive more deeply into some categories of the nonverbal communication mode. The term body language is often used as a synonym for nonverbal communication, but nonverbal communication is a broader term. Kinesics is another term that is used for the study gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Note again that cultures can vary a great deal in all categories of nonverbal communication.
Gestures are the first category, and they included movements of parts of the body, especially hands, arms, or the head, to express an idea or meaning. Here are some examples common to places where English is the main language spoken: thumbs up, thumbs down, OK sign, high five, waving, beckoning, shoulder shrug, the middle finger, nodding, shaking ones head, a little, big, tall. You get the idea.
Oculesics is the category of nonverbal communication concerned with eye movement, including the intensity, duration, and avoidance or eye-contact. Unsurprisingly, actions like staring, gazing, watching, looking, glancing, and spacing out are all important in oculesics.
Facial expressions are a bit like gestures but made only with the face. Facial expressions are not as easy to control as gestures since they often reveal feelings and are sometimes done subconsciously. They are made through tiny muscles throughout your face working together to deliver meaning. Examples are smiling, frowning, pouting, blinking, squinting, raising eyebrows, grinning, crying, and flaring nostrils. And of course, these actions in the face can be combined for more nuanced meaning.
Posture & movement
Posture & movement is another type of nonverbal communication, but this body language does not focus on the face or head or arms so much as the whole body. Examples are stance (which is another word for posture). People lean, stand stiff, cross their arms, sit, squat, cross their legs, slouch, stand tall (or stand confidently), and fidget (such as when you shake your leg after drinking too much coffee or when you are nervous. Children fidget a lot). Some actions like clapping and some head movements might be considered as part of this category rather than gestures.
Proxemics is the category that studies people’s distance from one another when communicating and the degree to which people touch when they communicate. Examples of actions in this category include bowing, shaking hands, kissing, touching (or haptics – the study of touch), squeezing, patting, hugging, etc. The concept of personal space comes into this category. Personal space refers to social distances people feel comfortable with depending on relationships. This varies rather widely from culture to culture.
Physical appearance and presentation
Of course, people communicate visually through their own person, too – your physical appearance and presentation. Your ethnicity, gender, age, body size, attractiveness, grooming, personal fashion, style, hairstyle, body art (like tattoos and piercings), jewelry, etc., whether you can control these things or not, are all types of visual information that communicate something to other people.
So, as you might have figured out by now, there is a lot more to human communication than just language. There are parts of human communication I have omitted here, too, like our use of space and time as a form of communication. There are linguists who may specialize in just one modes of communication or indeed even one category within a mode. You can probably find hundreds or, more likely, thousands of books and research papers written about the topic of gestures alone!
The takeaway (or the key point to remember) is that it’s impossible to become good at a foreign language like English without also learning a fair bit of the culture or cultures where it’s used. You’ll also be learning the paralanguage and vocalizations or utterances of English, as well as all the different categories of non-verbal communication that are so important in helping you effectively communicate.