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ASL Linguistics:  Nonlinguistic Communication

 

 

Nonlinguistic communication

William Vicars
8/12/01

 

Abstract

A paper presented on the question of what is nonlinguistic communication. Reasons for studying nonlinguistic communication are presented. Language and communication are defined and examined in relation to each other. Examples of nonlinguistic communication are given and discussed.

 

Table of Contents

Abstract *
Table of Contents
*
List of Tables
*
Nonlinguistic Communication
*
Defining Communication
*
Communication Encoding, Transfer, and Media
*
Defining Language
*
Communication vs. Language
*
Defining Nonlinguistic Communication
*
Paralanguage
*
Gestures
*
Why Study Nonlinguistic Communication?
*
In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream
*
Examples of Nonlinguistic Communication
*

 

List of Tables

Number Page

Table 1: Paralinguistic Communication........................................................................

Number Page

Table 1: Paralinguistic Communication........................................................................*

Table 2: Nonlinguistic Communication........................................................................*

Nonlinguistic Communication

Defining Communication

For many years scientists have been broadcasting radio signals into space in hopes of communicating with extra-terrestrial life. Science fiction movies and government cover-ups aside, we have yet to communicate with aliens. Our message sending has been one way, and as far as is known with any credulity, totally unsuccessful. It is inappropriate to call this "process of sending radio signals" communication. Attempted, unsuccessful, unidirectional sending of messages is not communication. We could though call it "attempted communication."

Suppose you are stranded on an island and you want to get a message to the mainland. You write a few sentences onto some paper. You look around the island and find a bottle. You put your message in the bottle and throw it in the ocean. Have you communicated? You did your part. You sent out the bottle. But have you really communicated? No. What you' have done is you've "issued a communication." In that phrase, "issued a communication" the meaning of the word "communicate" is altered by the word "a" preceding it. "Communication" is a process. "Communicate" is an action. "A communication" is a message. Sending a message, as I pointed out previously, is not the same as communicating. You could say that by throwing the bottle in the ocean you have initiated communication. It could even be said that you are in the act of communicating. But until someone picks up that bottle, opens it, reads your message, and understands your words--until all of that happens--you have only attempted communication. As long as your bottle is floating around in the sea, the communication attempt is still in progress. When the bottle dashes against a reef and the ink fades away in the salt water--we can officially declare the process as a failed communication.

Communication in general has been defined as the imparting of information (Webster's, 2001). Another definition of communication is, "The exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, signals, writing, or behavior," (American Heritage, 2000).

So let's review and clarify, communication can be successful or unsuccessful. Successful communication requires a recipient who understands your message. Unsuccessful communication can consist of either a message that was sent but did not reach its target, or it can be a message that reached its target but was not understood. A message sent and received, but not understood is a "failed communication."

Communication Encoding, Transfer, and Media

Until extrasensory perception becomes widespread, people are going to continue needing other methods of getting ideas out of their heads and into the heads of other people. Transferring one's thoughts to the world outside his head is generally accomplished through an encoding process such as speaking, writing, typing, or signing. We encode our thoughts onto or into media. Most people think of media or "the media" as newspapers, television, magazines, and other popular methods of disseminating information and entertainment. A medium is simply that which carries your message to the recipient. We encode our thoughts into signs which become alterations in light rays that travel through the air to the eyes of our recipient. We encode our thoughts into spoken words which vibrate their way through the air to someone's ears. We type our thoughts into our computers which then changes them into tiny pulses of electricity which are converted to light and travel over fiberoptics to reach our recipient's monitor.
Ways of communicating include but are not limited to: Talking, signing, writing, gesturing, using facial expressions, drawing pictures, proximity, wearing perfume, assuming certain postures, and many other ways.

Defining Language

The use of gestures, symbols, vocal sounds, and other signals to communicate does not, in and of itself constitute language.

The use of gestures, symbols, vocal sounds, and other signals to communicate does not, in and of itself constitute language. Communication and language are different but strongly related. Language is the "communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols," (American Heritage, 2000).  When we say a person is using language, we mean that he is using in a rule governed communication system to represent his thoughts and feelings to members of his community that share his language (Valli,2000).

Defining language is a lot like defining "art." If I stick my duck's feet in paint, set him on a canvas, and let him waddle around, --is that art? What if I had nothing to do with it? Suppose the duck just happened to walk across the paint and the canvas on his own, I notice it and then tack it to the wall, (the canvas, not the duck). Is that still art? What if I notice the canvas and throw it away but the janitor mistakenly thinks it was intended to be art and he takes it home and puts it on his wall. The point is that some people will loosely define this as art, while others will vehemently shout them down. What often ends up happening is you get a number of different definitions that are applied according to circumstance. Definitions become a big issue when government funding is involved. Sometimes in the art world you want to use a very strict definition requiring many features and characteristics so as to differentiate your branch of the arts from other branches so that you can get money. Other times you want to lobby for a very loose definition of art so that your "duck walk special" qualifies for the latest grant money. Obviously this can cause problems and confusion. The same issues are present when trying to define language.
Linguists tell us that language consists of identifiable elements: phonemes, morphemes, and lexemes, plus a set of rules on how to use combine those elements to in consistent ways so as to facilitate their correlation with ideas and thoughts. For example, the idea or thought of "more than one" is strongly correlated to the English language letter "s." For example to show more than one cat we add the phoneme "s" to the morpheme "cat." Once the phoneme "s" has been added to morpheme "cat" the phoneme "s" takes on meaning (which is to say it now represents the idea of more than one cat) and thus "s" is no longer considered a phoneme but is in that circumstance considered to be a morpheme (a bound morpheme actually) because it is now a meaningful unit. In words such as "sit, sign, and kiss" the letter "s" functions as a phoneme and carries no independent meaning. It is at the morphemic level that elements of speech start carrying meaning. Morphemes can be broken down to linguistic units that do not carry meaning, (phonemes). Encoding the idea, "more than one" into the bound morpheme "s" and then using that "s" either in your own mind to manage thinking or by transmitting it to someone else's mind through signing, speaking, or typing, is an example of language use. That is language at its most basic.

On the other end of the definition spectrum, there are many features that a communication system must possess prior to it's being considered "a language." Notice, there is a difference between "language" and "a language." Neurolinguistic psychologists talk about "language." Linguists talk about languages. Cognitive scientists talk about language use. Linguists talk about language features. How you define language depends on your audience. A linguist will tell you that while all languages are communication systems, not all communication systems are languages (Valli, 2000).

Communication vs. Language

Communication and language are different. Language helps you to communicate. Language enables the mind to compress and efficiently manage thoughts, then it serves as a vehicle to transport those thoughts out of the mind and into the world.

Communication is a broader concept than language. The purpose of language is to provide one of the essential elements needed for communication, but communication is the goal. (Finnerty, 1991) Language is a vehicle, communication is the destination.

Defining Nonlinguistic Communication

Linguistic" means pertaining to language. "Nonlinguistic" means not using language. Nonlinguistic communication is the imparting of information without using language. Or in other words, sending and receiving messages without using a communication system that has the characteristic features of a language as identified by linguists. Gestures, written symbols, or voice sounds don't constitute "language" unless they take place within a language framework. For example, the voicing of sounds that are not part of any system is not called language, it is called babbling. Eventually babies start associating ideas and thoughts with sounds or signs (Owens, 1988). At that point you could say they are using "internal language." They aren't using "a language" yet, but they are using the building blocks of language to expedite their cognitive development. When a child starts saying a few words like mom or milk he is using language fragments to communicate. He is literally building a language framework. Suppose you were building a house. At what point could you actually call it a house? Would you call it a house when the frame is up? How about when the roof is on but not yet shingled? Suppose the roof has shingles and the walls have drywall but there are no doors or windows. Is it a house yet? As you can see there is no one exact defining moment when you could hammer in a certain nail and proclaim that "Whereas three seconds ago you were not a house and now with the hammering of this nail you are a house!"
Similarly you cannot look at a developing child and say you don't have language yet but let me teach you just one more syntactical construct and three more vocabulary words and boom you now have language.

Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist at UCLA and a pioneer in nonlinguistic communication research, has studied nonlinguistic communication for over thirty years. His research shows that, on average, the spoken words we use account for only seven percent of the meaning people derive from conversations. Paralinguistic information accounts for thirty-eight percent. The majority of meaning, fifty-five percent, comes from nonverbal, or unspoken information. This nonverbal information is sometimes called "body language." When our body language conflicts with words, listeners will typically pay more attention to our body language. (Mehrabian, 1972).

Body Language

What is body language, and is body language linguistic or nonlinguistic communication? Body language, as indicated by Mehrabian, is "nonverbal communication." Communication isn't the same thing as language. Many hearing people automatically consider body language to be nonlinguistic. Many people in the signing world tend to think of body language as being linguistic because they obviously using their bodies to produce language independent of their voices. There is a difference between sign language and body language. Just as there is a difference between using your body to produce ASL and using your body to produce mime. Both ASL and mime allow you to communicate. Of the two, only ASL qualifies as language. Mime is nonlinguistic. Two people of different languages can communicate using mime. Mime is defined as, "the art of portraying characters and acting out situations or a narrative by gestures and body movement without the use of words, (American Heritage, 2000). In contrast, ASL uses gestures and body movements to create signs. Signs are the visual equivalent of words. A sign can be broken down into phonemes, (cheremes actually). Those signs are combined according to grammar rules to describe the thoughts and ideas of the signer more efficiently than can be accomplished via mime.

Paralanguage

Paralanguage is the nonphonemic properties of speech that people use to inflect the meanings or their verbal language. Speaking faster, using a lower tone of voice, raising the pitch of your voice at the end of a sentence are all examples of paralanguage. (American Heritage, 2000).

Table 1: Paralinguistic Communication

Paralinguistic Communication

vocal speed

vocal loudness

pitch

tone

"tsk, tsk,"

clicking the tongue

"sighing"

laughing

sobbing

 

Nonverbal Communication

The term "verbal" has two common meanings: using words, and spoken. If I say that someone is using nonverbal communication, does that mean he is communicating without words? Or does that mean he is communicating without speaking. Popular usage tends to interpret the term "nonverbal communication as meaning communicating silently without words." American Sign Language is nonverbal in the sense that it is gesturally produced. But it is certainly "verbal" in the sense that it uses words, or rather signs. Words are the lexemes of spoken languages. Signs are the lexemes of signed languages.

Gestures

A gesture is a body or limb movement that you use to express a thought or feeling (Websters, 2001). A cognitive scientist might say that a person using a gesture is employing language in that the gesture is a symbol that outwardly represents a thought or idea. A linguist would counter however that just because a symbol represents a thought or idea doesn't qualify it as language. Most adult Americans recognize dozens of gestures. For example, they recognize the shrugging of the shoulders as meaning "I don't know." Gestures are not the same as words or signs. Deaf people use signs as lexemes and use gestures to inflect the meanings of their signs. Gestures have meaning but are not organized into a language. Gestures are to language like spice is to food. One could argue that spice is a type of food and he would be right in that spices have calories and are consumable, but spice, in and of itself, is not considered to be food because it is used differently. People sit down and eat food. No body sits down, pours himself a bowl of pepper, and digs in.

Language is sort of like the freeze drying and packaging process. Why do people freeze dry food? Freeze drying makes it easier to preserve and transport food. Once the food arrives at its destination it can be reconstituted. What freeze drying and packaging does for food, language does for thoughts and ideas. Via language I can package my ideas into a few words and then transport them to your mind where you will (hopefully) reconstitute them. Just as a fresh banana is not freeze dried food--gestures and facial expressions are not language. Neither is mime.

Language is like a cake

A cake can and does incorporate flour, but flour and cake are certainly different. Ingredients are not finished food products. Milk, flour, sugar, baking powder, and eggs are not cake. It is only when these ingredients are mixed together and baked that they become cake. If you don't follow the rules of baking, and you don't combine the ingredients in the right way then you cannot claim to have cake. You can eat milk, flour, sugar and eggs separately and you will get full. You can also eat cake and get full. You can learn and come to an understanding about things from watching mime. You can also learn and come to an understanding about things from watching American Sign Language. ASL and mime are two different ways of accomplishing communication.

American Sign Language can and does incorporate facial expressions, gestures, and certain body movements. When used with ASL, these are called non-manual markers. For example the cheek-to-shoulder marker can be used to modify signs like shy, recent, and there to mean "very shy," "very recent," and "right there, close." The fact that gestures and facial expressions are used as part of ASL doesn't make them linguistic anymore than the fact that flour can be used as part of a cake makes flour a cake.

Why Study Nonlinguistic Communication?

Understanding nonlinguistic communication can reduce frustration and improve relationships between people. As global commerce increases, people of different language backgrounds increasingly find themselves needing to communicate with each other. If nonlinguistic communication conflicts with or is perceived to conflict with corresponding linguistic communication, the discourse will tend to be skewed. Perhaps you've heard the phrase, "I know you think you understood what I said but what you heard was not what I meant." In response, you might say, "Yes, well the reason why I interpreted what you said the way I did is because you scratched your nose and crossed your legs while saying it, plus you've got a white rose in your pocket."

You might wonder what a "white rose" has to do with anything. The answer is: color communicates. The color of the rose is a nonlinguistic form of communication. The meaning of color is different from culture to culture. (WorldSmart, 2001) White flowers, in some countries--especially in Asia, are symbolic of death and mourning. To you the flower may be an attempt at nonlinguisticly communicating pure motives and good intentions, but your culturally Chinese friend is instead wondering, "Who died." Worse, suppose you decide to decorate a meeting hall with centerpieces made of white flowers? Your company is working on a multi-million dollar sales contract with an Asian corporation. You finish setting the last of over a hundred tables with your little beacons of death just in time for the delegates to come streaming though the door.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

The advertising slogan of the 1979 movie "Alien" was, "In space, no one can hear you scream." That may be true, but they can hear your nonlinguistic, nonverbal communication loud and clear. Miscommunication in space can easily result in serious ramifications (Connors, 1985). Think about Dennis Tito on April 28 of this year, boarding the Russian Soyuz booster and rocketing into space. Imagine the safety and communications issues as Tito boarded the International Space Station, Alpha (David, 2001). Imagine the communication between the astronauts and the cosmonauts. Perhaps commander Talgat Musabayev was worried about a lack of communication causing the loss of a multi-billion dollar space station or causing the death of Tito? Multinational space travelers face weightlessness and other conditions in space that alter nonlinguistic communication cues such as voice tone, facial expressions, posture, and distancing. These nonlinguistic cues can either mitigate or exacerbate the linguistic and cultural differences between crew members (Connors, 1985).

Of course, only a few people ever need to communicate in space, but we still face communication issues daily. Many people circumnavigate nonlinguistic communication miscues by simply increasing the quantity of their linguistic communication. For example if two people are talking and the receiver of a message feels that the nonlinguistic communication of the other person conflicts with the linguistic communication being sent, the recipient will tend to ask for more clarification, whereupon the sender will explain more in-depth.
Clarifying directions, repeating and rephrasing of messages, and delays in providing additional information, all consume valuable time and effort. Often the additional time and effort translate directly into monetary penalties. Extended hotel stays, longer dialup fees, additional auto-rental days, conference room rental expenses, etc. Communication is expensive. Studying or at least becoming more aware of non-linguistic communication can help corporations streamline and fine tune their communication methods and thereby save money.

Table 2: Nonlinguistic Communication

Nonlinguistic Communication

video

gaze

non-sign gestures

facial expressions

pictures

proximity

posture

color

objects

jewelry

clothes

symbols

perfume/cologne

pheromones

 

Examples of Nonlinguistic Communication

Suppose I design a new water dispensing system for charitable use in an multilingual locality. I want to make sure people of any language background can use it. So I videotape myself going to the machine, setting my jug under the spigot, pressing a red button to position the spigot, pressing and holding a blue button to fill my bucket, releasing the blue button, pressing a green button to raise the spigot, and then taking my jug and walking away. My making and posting the video equates to my sending a message. The video is on a loop and so it continues playing again and again. People coming to the machine will be able to watch the video and form and understanding in their mind of how to use the dispenser. The message has been received. Language was not involved in the communication. The person watching my video may choose to use his native language to encode the steps of getting water into his memory. But that doesn't take away from the fact that I'm not using his language to communicate with him. A message has been sent and received without reliance upon language. I may use language to formulate my message. He may use language to process and encode my message into his brain...but the medium of transfer of the message was not language. That is the essence of nonlinguistic communication.

 

References:

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). (2000) Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Connors, M. (1985) "Living aloft: Human requirements for extended spaceflight." Retrieved 7 Aug. 2001 <<http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-483/ch6-5.htm>>

David, L. (2001, June 26). Dennis Tito addresses congress on future space tourism. Space.com. Retrieved 7 Aug. 2001: <http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/missions/tourism_conference_010626.html>.

Deacon, T. (1997)1. THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: W.W. Norton

Finnerty, J (1991) Analyzing the development of early childhood language, Communication Analyzer User's Guide Lexington, MA: Educational Software Research Inc. Retrieved Aug. 7, 2001 <http://www.ultranet.com/~finnerty/Canv012.htm#Communication vs. Language>

Mehrabian, A. 1972. Nonverbal communication. Chicago: Aldine Atherton

Owens, R. (1988) Language development: An introduction (2nd ed.). Columbus: Charles Merrill.

Valli, C. & Lucas, C. (2000) Linguistics of American Sign Language. (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press

Webster's World Encyclopedia 2001 (CDROM.). (2001) Frenches Forest, Australia: Webster Publishing

WorldSmart. (2001). "Colors." Web of Culture Retrieved 7 Aug. 2001: <http://www.webofculture.com/worldsmart/design_colors.html>


 


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