5 Gestures to Teach MLLs

In my June blog, entitled “The Importance of Body Language for Effective Oral Communication,” I introduced how important it is to teach body language to multilingual language learners (MLLs) so that they can learn to communicate effectively. I specifically discussed the importance of teaching MLLs to maintain eye contact and respect the personal space of others, and how volume, pitch, and intonation affect oral communication.

This month, I would like to talk about gestures. I encourage you to read each item and do the motion with your own hand. Think about what the gestures mean in your own culture; compare that meaning to what I have written and consider how you might teach these to your MLLs.

Note of caution: I must warn teachers that many popular gestures can have an additional meaning if used by young people on social media.

1. Beckoning With the Index Finger, Palm up and Fingers Curled Inward

In the United States and many European countries, this gesture means “come here.” However, using your index finger to call someone is insulting is the Middle East, Portugal, Spain, Latin America, Japan, China, and Indonesia. It is more acceptable to beckon someone by using all of your fingers with your palm facing you or by waving with your whole hand.

2. Using the Thumbs-up Sign

This gesture, a sign of approval or agreement, is used throughout the United States and Europe. However, it is considered obscene in Italy, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Australia. This gesture may have additional meanings to young people and is often used on TikTok. I suggest that teachers look it up or ask teens that you know what it means to them.

3. Pointing at Something With Your Index Finger

This is acceptable in the United States and Canada. I was taught as a child, however, that it is rude to point at a person. We see this often in the United States now among younger people and teachers in the classroom who are calling on students to participate. We need to be aware that gestures can change meaning or become more acceptable as the world gets smaller.

4. Smiling

I hesitate to say that smiling is a universal gesture. People around the world may smile for many reasons. In Asia, people may smile when they are embarrassed. People in other cultures may not use a smile as a friendly gesture as we do in the United States. A smile may be reserved for friends only. A high school student from China told me that when she first came to the United States and walked the halls of her new high school, students that she didn’t know smiled and said “hello.” She thought it meant that these students were all new friends. My experience of living in France taught me that many see Americans’ propensity to smile at everyone as phony. For teachers in the United States, it is important not to judge students or their parents if they do not smile when they greet you.

5. Forming a Circle With Your Thumb and Index Finger to Indicate Okay

This gesture has changed much over the past years. Although this gestures means okay in the United States and many countries around the world, there are exceptions. In Brazil or Spain, it is an obscene gesture. In Japan, it can mean money, and in France it means zero or worthless. In the United States, it can have a negative context used to show white supremacy. Given its many interpretations, you might want to do a little research regarding this gesture and decide what you are going to teach to your MLLs. Here is an article about other meanings of the term “OK,” and why the written term might be fraught.


Are there other gestures you’ve found important to teach to your MLLs? Please share in the comments below!

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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One Response to
5 Gestures to Teach MLLs

  1. Cheikh Omar says:

    It is advisable, to avoid misinterpretation of what you actually mean by your gestures, when you travel anywhere, to ask about gestures and their meanings.

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