Facial expressions, such as raising eyebrows, are an important part of both English language and American Sign Language (Submitted photo)

Facial expressions, such as raising eyebrows, are an important part of both English language and American Sign Language (Submitted photo)

Family Literacy Day: Communicating without words

Literacy is about all forms of communication

Katie Everett

Special to the 100 Mile Free Press

Literacy is about all forms of communication. Not just reading and writing, but verbal and nonverbal communication.

The best definition of literacy I have found is the one from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics website. It defines literacy as the ability to “identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute using printed and written materials.” In other words, language is about much more than text.

In many ways, learning a new language is about becoming a toddler again. That is certainly how I felt when I began learning American Sign Language (ASL). I had so many ideas and feelings to express but was forced to share them in the simplest of ways because of my limited vocabulary. I have found when learning a new language that it helps if you don’t take yourself so seriously!

There are things you need to learn that aren’t intuitive. For example, when asking a question in English, you change your inflection at the end of a sentence. But in ASL, you raise an eyebrow. When giving a command in English, you change your tone of voice. In ASL, you sign faster.

Literacy, I would argue, also involves thinking about social norms. For example, we need to learn how closely we are expected to stand to a stranger versus a good friend. In Canada, we expect the largest bubble of space between ourselves and others but in Japan, they expect the smallest bubble of space. This is likely due to the difference in population density. And now with COVID, these expectations are even further complicated.

Also, who do we express deference to and how do we show that with our body? How much eye contact is friendly and how much is odd?

The next time you are standing around, having a conversation with others, I challenge you to count all the ways those around you are conveying meaning without using words. How much do you learn about someone from eye contact, a smirk, a laugh, a shrug, a hand on your shoulder? How much can you gather from inflection, tone of voice, a grimace or groan?

Particularly in the time of COVID when we often can’t see another person’s mouth, the importance of noticing other forms of nonverbal communication is that much greater.

I think you’ll be amazed by the volume of information shared that has nothing to do with words!

Katie Everett is the English Language Learning Facilitator with Cariboo Chilcotin Partners for Literacy

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