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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Nonverbal Signaling in the EFL Classroom: Implications for English Teaching in South Korea

Kelsey Ulrich-Verslycken is an Assistant Professor of English and TESOL at the Cyber Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Graduate School of TESOL. Her research focuses primarily on culture and communication and L2 fluency. Email:



This paper examined initial perspectives of second-language (L2) nonverbal signaling in the EFL classroom among students of and professionals working in the EFL industry in South Korea. To this end, this paper discussed the relationship between nonverbal signaling and communication and conducted a survey to ascertain whether or not the EFL industry in South Korea has any relationship with or interest in instruction in L2 nonverbal signaling. This survey concluded that while there is little to no current research in English into the instruction of nonverbal signaling in the EFL classroom in Korea, participants agreed that the extent that nonverbal signaling affects intercultural communication makes it a viable candidate for further research both conceptually and pragmatically.



This paper was supported by a 2019 research grant from the Cyber Hankuk University of Foreign Studies



The bulk of research into nonverbal behavior is relatively aged in academic terms, stemming from core research developed in the 1950s and 1960s, reemerging in the 1990s, and then largely ignored by the academic community. In regards to research on nonverbal signaling in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom, there are few studies that have been undertaken in this regard. However, it is largely agreed that in communication, how someone participates in a language is just as important as what they use to participate with. Whether consciously or subconsciously, interlocutors are constantly assessing one’s verbal utterances in tandem with their nonverbal signals in order to appropriately analyze meaning. Because of the inseparability between verbal and nonverbal elements in communication, native speakers of a language learn appropriate nonverbal signaling in conjunction with their first language (L1). When speaking a second language, however, little attention is given to an understanding of L2 nonverbal signaling. In most second language learning, we only teach how to replace and reproduce the linguistic elements of communication, resulting in second language speakers that often present verbal forms that seem disconnected from their nonverbal signaling in the target language (TL). Concisely, when L2 speakers only learn the linguistic components of the TL and then present those target forms using L1 signaling, they don’t convey full and appropriate meaning in the TL and run the risk of being misinterpreted, or worse, not understood at all.

The present study was undertaken in an attempt to gauge whether or not teachers and students in the EFL industry in South Korea consider nonverbal signaling to be an important aspect of the communication process, to ascertain how South Korean EFL teachers and students view the relationship between nonverbal signaling and culture, and to ultimately assess whether there is any foundational interest in the teaching of L2 signaling in the EFL classroom in South Korea. Students of the Cyber Hankuk Graduate School of TESOL were surveyed on these questions and their responses were analyzed. The responses that emerged showed a relatively strong understanding of the importance of nonverbal signaling in L2 communication, but little to no actual experience in either conducting or being involved in an EFL class that included instruction on nonverbal signaling.


Background and Rationale

  1. Nonverbal signaling​​​​​​​

Knapp (1978) categorizes nonverbal signaling into seven classifications of meaning transmittal: kinesic behavior, physical characteristics, touching behavior, paralanguage, proxemics, artifacts, and environmental factors. Many of these categories, in turn, have further subcategorizations, but these classifications and their subcategorizations are not the intent of this paper. Three of these behaviors—kinesic behavior, paralanguage, and proxemics—have strong conversational implications and therefore particularly affect social interactions between interlocutors from different languacultures (Agar, 1995). Kinesics is the study of body movement, including gestures. Paralanguage are sound-based speech accompaniers, such as filler words. Proxemics is the study of the physical space between people. For succinctness, this paper only discusses these three types of nonverbal signaling.

  1. Nonverbal signaling as inseparable from culture

It is well-established that nonverbal signaling is integral to communication. It is also no secret that nonverbal signaling varies among cultures. Duke (1974) compares the understanding of nonverbal communication to that of cultural awareness, as “much of our awareness of proper non-verbal behavior remains unconscious: we react and do the proper thing without even noticing” (p. 400). Just as with culture, much of our use of nonverbal signaling in communication happens subconsciously, and we only become aware of our own nonverbal signaling when confronted with contradictory signals. We signal without even knowing that we signal, and we understanding the signaling of others without explicit analysis. Because of this, “misunderstandings occasionally occur” (Duke, 1974, p. 400) when two languacultures interact, as subconscious nonverbal signaling is often interpreted differently from its intention. Gestures themselves can be interpreted as inappropriate or impolite, may be mismatched with the formality of the situation, or may contradict the spoken message entirely (Gregersen, Olivares-Cuhat, and Storm, 2009, p. 196). The ultimate goal of understanding nonverbal implications, particularly in intercultural communication, is to navigate and prevent unintentional miscommunications.

The cultural relevancy of nonverbal signaling can be easily noticed in a comparison between signaling in Korean and English. One type of nonverbal signaling, for example, deals with explicit gestures; a type of kinesics. In English, for example, someone could make a circle with their thumb and first finger, then extend the other three fingers to form a gesture that means “OK.” In Korean, however, this same gesture means “money.”

Another type of nonverbal signaling comes from paralanguage, or sound-based speech accompaniers. To compare Korean and English paralanguage, consider the regulating vocal qualifier “응” (pronounced “eung”; meaning “yeah”) used in Korean speech the same way that “mmhmm” may be used in English conversation. Linguistically, these forms can be explicitly interchanged and are simple to comprehend. Culturally, however, “mmhmm” has little to no implication as to politeness: “응”, on the other hand, would be considered an impolite regulator in Korean culture when speaking to someone older or of a higher social standing than oneself. In that situation, the more polite “네” (pronounced “nae”; meaning “yes”) is to be spoken. Though easy to recognize and understand, the cultural underpinning of such paralinguistic forms make it possible for misunderstands to cause issues between L1 and L2 speakers.

Finally, one last comparison can be exemplified through another element of nonverbal signaling—one’s sense of personal space. Known as proxemics (Hall, 1959), this refers to a speaker’s understanding of appropriateness in one’s “proximate environment” (Leathers, 1976). Or, simply put, their personal bubble. To exemplify the difference in proxemics in English and Korean languacultures, let’s imagine a scenario where someone plans to get lunch with a coworker. In English, they may say: “Let’s go together.” In Korean, “같이가요.” (katchi ka yo). Explicitly, these linguistic forms are simple to learn. Indicatively, however, the behaviors involved in the scenario that would include these lexical items may be very different. In most English-speaking countries, it would be inappropriate to link arms with someone and physically walk together. In Korean culture, however, women especially are known to foster stronger relationships through close proxemics, and it would not be uncommon for women to link arms and literally walk together. In this scenario speakers of the two different languacultures might become uncomfortable with the proxemics of the scenario.

  1. Nonverbal signaling in intercultural communication

These examples are all relatively harmless, but demonstrate how a misuse of appropriate nonverbal signaling in another culture can lead to miscommunication or even offense. McCafferty (2002) further explores the importance of kinesic behaviors in intercultural communication, comparing the use of a second language to a theatrical performance, asserting that “when interacting with native speakers, nonnative speakers can feel quite disconnected from both the language and the setting, as if they are playing a part.” (p. 193) Kinesic behavior is so interrelated with vocalic communication that a native speaker’s involvement in the language incorporates a great percentage of nonverbal communication that would be understood as interconnected with speech, whereas a nonnative speaker of the language would not share the same vocalic and kinesic connections, resulting in speech that feels disconnected from the situation, even if appropriate.

Paralanguage also has strong implications for intercultural communication. Pearce and Mueller (1975) assert:

When speaking a second language, people frequently impose the vocalic patterns appropriate for their own language upon the linguistic structures of the other, and interpret the vocal cues in the second language according to the conventions they have learned within their native language community. (p. 856).

Paralinguistic features such as tone, pace, and pitch are learned inseparably from language in L1 acquisition, resulting in L2 speakers that unknowingly apply L1 paralinguistic indicators when speaking their TL. Likewise, problems arise in paralinguistic interpretation when “vocalic patterns which have particular meanings in one language have quite different meanings in the other.” (Peace and Mueller, 1975, p. 860).

Finally, proxemics. One’s proximate environment can be described as their “territory” (Knapp, 1978), and the size of one’s territory is often determined by cultural background. In intercultural communication, this proximal comfort zone becomes imperative in the expected conversational distance (Knapp, 1978) between speakers. Hall’s (1959) research investigated the “informal space,” or personal space, that was comfortable between speakers. This research spurred other research into the conversational implicature of conversational distance, with Willis (1966) applying it directly to personal space distances in a variety of contexts, including the spatial awareness of genders, interlocutors of different ages, etc. Violating another’s proximate environment can easily lead to discomfort, fear, or even offense.


Literature review

So far, this paper has only looked at what nonverbal signaling is, how nonverbal signaling relates to culture, and how differences in nonverbal signaling among cultures could result in miscommunications in intercultural interaction. Then, what research has already been conducted as to the role of nonverbal signaling in the language-learning classroom?

In regards to kinesics in the L2 classroom, Allen (1999) compares culturally significant emblems in English and French, demonstrating how emblems (gestures that replace specific words, Knapp, 1978) are unique to the cultures from which they stemmed and, therefore, can lead to misunderstandings between speakers from different languacultures. Arndt & Pesch (1984) consider affect displays (showing emotions, Knapp, 1978) and their effect on both students’ and teachers’ perception of the material at hand, suggesting that affect displays can affect a student’s willingness to communicate in the classroom. Gregersen, Olivares-Cuhat, and Storm (2009) analyzed the relationship between gesticulation and language use in a speaker’s L1 and L2 in Spanish as a Foreign Language classrooms, specifically, whether or not L1 gesture proficiency is maintained when speakers interact in their L2. Gregersen, Olivares-Cuhat, and Storm (2009) found that nonverbal proficiency in a speaker’s L1 did not translate to nonverbal proficiency in the speaker’s L2 until the speaker’s overall language proficiency level was rather advanced. Ikeda (2011) conducted a study focused on how teacher synchrony of kinesics and language can aid L2 instruction in Japanese as a Foreign Language classrooms in the United States. Ikeda (2011) concluded that JFL students were “highly attentive” (p. 218) to the nonverbal gestures that teachers used in conjunction with language, both in regards to instructional body indicators as well as content-based nonverbal signals.

There are few studies that consider the role of paralanguage in the L2 classroom. Pearce & Mueller (1975) considered paralinguistic elements in French as a Foreign Language (FFL) classrooms in the United States, concluding that without a mastery of paralanguage in the TL, even advanced FFL students had “serious obstacles” (p. 862) in communicating meaning. Pearce & Mueller (1975) further assert that it is only “once aware of vocalic communication” that students begin to shed self-doubt in the TL and embrace the “vocalic patterns characteristic of the second language.” (p. 863). Jenkins & Parra (2003) investigated the role that paralinguistic features played in proficiency testing in EFL students with either Spanish or Chinese as their L1, determining that those students with greater acumen in the TL paralinguistic features were consistently ranked “near the top of the scale in all linguistic categories” (p. 96), demonstrating that one’s paralinguistic ability in the TL is a strong indicator for perceived proficiency.

As for proxemics, there are very few studies that consider proxemics in the second language classroom. Watson and Graves (1966) studied the differences in proximate comfort between Arab students and American students, noting that the Arab students were much more comfortable in tight proxemics spaces than the American students. Thus, when speakers from different languacultures interact, their personal proximate comfort level might unwittingly create discomfort or even insinuate distrust between the interlocutors. An individual from a culture that has a relatively tight proximal comfort zone may feel slighted when interacting with someone from a culture which values larger proximate zones, and vice versa.

At the time of this paper, there were no studies in the English language found that considered nonverbal signaling in the EFL classroom in South Korea.



  1. Participants

To better understand the South Korean perspective of the role of nonverbal signaling in language learning and teaching, a survey was conducted asking participants to consider what, if any, impact nonverbal signaling has had or might have on students learning English in Korea. The participants surveyed are all from South Korea, have Korean as their L1, and are all studying at Cyber Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in the Graduate School of TESOL and, specifically, are all students of a Classroom English course. These students were selected because of their close association with the EFL industry in South Korea, indicating that all participants have, at minimum, been an EFL student at some time in South Korea. In total, seven students provided answers to the survey. Three of the participants are EFL teachers in South Korea. One participant is an EFL student. Three of the participants are neither current EFL teachers nor students, but they all work in an environment that communicates primarily in English.

  1. Procedure

The survey was conducted through Google Forms, and consisted of 11 questions. The questions were a mix of demographic survey questions, multiple choice questions, semantic differential scale questions, and open-ended survey questions. These 11 questions asked students to consider their current association with English (whether they are a teacher, student, or working in an English environment), their current understanding of how nonverbal signaling affects everyday communication, whether or not they consider nonverbal signaling to affect inter-languacultural communication, what, if any, instruction in L2 nonverbal signaling they had experienced as EFL students or conducted as EFL teachers, and whether or not they thought nonverbal signaling should be included in the EFL curriculum in South Korea.

While the participants surveyed all come from comparable backgrounds, there were numerous individual variables. The participants were all of various ages, consisted of both genders, and had varying roles within the EFL industry. Because this survey only strived to achieve an initial understanding of South Korean perspectives on nonverbal signaling, individual variables were embraced as they would give varied perspectives on the topic at hand. 



After establishing each participants’ relationship with the EFL industry in South Korea (whether they are a teacher, student, or work in an EFL environment), participants were asked to what extent they think that nonverbal signaling affects interpersonal question. In this question, all participants posited that nonverbal signaling affects communication at least somewhat, with five out of seven participants indicating that they believe nonverbal signaling to affect interpersonal communication “to a great extent.”

Next, participants were asked to consider what type of nonverbal signaling they think most affects everyday communication, the options presented being gestures, facial expressions, paralanguage, prosody (tone, pitch, etc.), and proxemics. Six out of seven students agreed that facial expressions greatly affected everyday communication. Five out of seven participants posited that gestures and prosody also were strong contributors in everyday communication. The other types of nonverbal signaling received no response.

The next questions transitioned from an understanding of signaling in and of itself to and understanding of signaling in cultures. All participants felt that nonverbal signaling varied among different languages and cultures, and all participants suggested that these differences could account for misunderstandings in the communication among speakers of different languages.

The rest of the questions posed focused on nonverbal signaling in the EFL classroom. When asked whether they thought explicit instruction of L2 nonverbal signaling in the EFL classroom could improve students’ confidence and accuracy, all participants agreed. However, when asked whether they had ever included or attended a class that included instruction on EFL nonverbal signaling, most participants responded with “no” or “unsure.” Two students that had some type of classroom experience with EFL nonverbal signaling, and they indicated that the focus of this instruction was gestures and facial expressions.

Finally, participants were asked whether they thought instruction on L2 nonverbal signaling should be included in the EFL curriculum in South Korea. Six participants responded “yes” and one responded “maybe,” providing reasons such as “to understand explicit differences in gestures,” “to help students better understand the signaling of their English teachers,” and that “it would be helpful in helping students communicate effectively in their L2.”



This study is far from conclusive, but is rife with implications for the future of EFL teaching in South Korea. The results of the survey are, on the whole, merely an indicator that further study into the role of nonverbal signaling in L2 learning and teaching, specifically in South Korea, is open for consideration. At the time that this paper was written, I could find no studies regarding nonverbal signaling in the EFL classroom based in South Korea in the English language. However, these results indicated that South Korean perspectives of the relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication and the potential for nonverbal signaling to become a critical component in the EFL classroom are on par with previous research regarding nonverbal signaling as a theory and nonverbal signaling in the classroom. While the participants involved had no formal training in nonverbal signaling, nor were any of them actively involved with attempting to include nonverbal signaling in their own curriculum, they did seem to conclude that such signaling should be included in the EFL classroom in South Korea.



This study aimed to merely gauge the reception of the topic of nonverbal signaling in second language classrooms in the EFL industry in South Korea. In that regard, a study was undertaken that asked participants to explore their understanding of what nonverbal signaling affects communication, ascertain their understanding of the relationship between nonverbal signaling and culture, and to evaluate the current standing of the role of nonverbal signaling in Korean EFL classrooms, whether signaling is and/or should be included in the teaching of English as a foreign language.

As these objectives were primarily exploratory in nature, no precise conclusions can be drawn from the research conducted. However, this paper does lay the foundation for various branches of future research. This preliminary study itself could be expanded, involving a greater number of participants from a more refined source (only current Korean EFL teachers, for example). This paper also didn’t explore how nonverbal signaling affects the second language classroom, how nonverbal fluency contributes to L2 fluency, how an understanding of L2 nonverbal signaling affects L2 communicative proficiency, or whether or not pedagogical methods could and should be adjusted to include explicit instruction on L2 nonverbal signaling.

This paper does suggest, though, that even though no research has thus been conducted regarding nonverbal signaling in the EFL classroom in South Korea in English, perspectives from the participants in this study align with global perspectives on nonverbal signaling, its role in communication, its role in intercultural communication, and, ultimately, its potential as a tool for the EFL classroom.



Agar, M. (1995). Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York: William Morrow.

Allen, L.Q. (1999). Functions of Nonverbal Communication in Teaching and Learning a Foreign Language. The French Review, 72 (3), 469-480.

Arndt, H. & Pesch, H.W. (1984). Nonverbal Communication and Visual Teaching Aids: A Perceptual Approach. The Modern Language Journal, 68 (1), 28-36.

Duke, C.R. (1974). Nonverbal Behavior and the Communication Process. College Composition and Communication, 25 (5), 397-404.

Gregersen, T., Olivares-Cuhat, G., & Storm, J. (2009). An Examination of L1 and L2 Gesture Use: What Role Does Proficiency Play? The Modern Language Journal, 93 (2), 195-208.

Hall, E.T. (1959). The Silent Language. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday.

Ikeda, K. (2011). Enriching Interactional Space Nonverbally: Microanalysis of Teachers’ Performance in JFL Classrooms. Japanese Language and Literature, 45 (1), 195-226.

Jenkins, S. & Parra, I. (2003). Multiple Layers of Meaning in an Oral Proficiency Test: The Complementary Roles of Nonverbal, Paralinguistic, and Verbal Behaviors in Assessment Decisions. The Modern Language Journal, 87 (1), 90-107.

Knapp, M.L. (1978). Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction (2nd ed.). USA: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Leathers, D.G. (1976). Nonverbal Communication Systems. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

McCafferty, S.G. (2002). Gesture and Creating Zones of Proximal Development for Second Language Learning. The Modern Language Journal, 86 (2), 192-203.

Pearce, W.B. & Mueller, T.H. (1975). Vocalic Communication in Second-Language Learning. The French Review, 48 (5), 856-863.

Watson, O.M. & Graves, T.D. (1966). Quantitative Research in Proxemic Behavior. American Anthropologist, 68, 971-985.

Willis, F.N. (1966). Initial Speaking Distance as a Function of the Speakers’ Relationship. Psychonomic Science, 5, 221-222.


Please check the Body Language and Gesture Techniques in the English Classroom Course at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Nonverbal Signaling in the EFL Classroom: Implications for English Teaching in South Korea
    Kelsey Ulrich-Verslycken, South Korea