Language is the first concern in teaching communicative competence. Grammar, pronunciation, listening comprehension and speech are all vital skills needed by ESL learners. However, there are other elements that may not be so apparent that are part of the overall interrelated system.

The language and behavior faced by the ESL students will not be well rehearsed textbook patterns but "live" authentic situations. The listeners both learners and native speakers may get the wrong impressions because the paralinguistic features of language can cause interference, so interest in paralinguistic functions has been increasing.

Stress and intonation

Contrastive stress in sentences is usually not covered by the grammar books. The way a native speaker reads the following English examples makes a major change in the meaning:

  • HE must believe her. (That is, even if others do not.)
  • He must BELIEVE her. (That is, rather than doubt her.)
  • He must believe HER. (That is, even if he does not believe anyone else.)


Body language (including facial expression), position of the hands and arms, movements and distance all influence the message. These form subcodes that are culturally specific.

For example, tilting the head back and making a click with the tongue is a negation in Arabic countries. In America, it would be considered a rude insult.

Proxemics varies by culture. Latin Americans and Middle Easterners stand close to each other while talking. To an American they may seem too intimate, while Americans seem distant and cold to them.

Some Middle Easterners may perceive touching a member of the opposite sex or winking as offensive, and some Asians will be offended if one touches a baby on the head. The American OK sign is an insult in the Middle East.

Feedback varies from culture to culture as well. Americans may feel that failure to maintain eye contact is rude, while in some cultures — Asian, for example it is a sign of respect. If an Asian nods his head, it indicates that the person is listening, but not necessarily understanding.

In many cultures, the American habit of putting one's feet on the table is considered rude, while Americans may think it strange to remove their shoes upon entering a home an action required in some areas.


There is general agreement that gestures play an essential role in speech and in thought process. Gestures have a positive effect on communication, which is consistent with L2 acquisition research.

Gestures and speech coexist in time, meaning and function to such a degree that they can be reasonably regarded as different sides of a single underlying mental process. Instructors should be aware of common gestures and be able to incorporate them into teaching, particularly at the basic levels.

Many researchers have classified gestures into four basic types:

  1. Iconic gestures show the physical characteristics or things or actions, "e.g., sweeping motions accompanying the word broom."
  2. Metaphorical gestures convey an abstract idea by physically expressing concrete attributes associated with it. Speakers would use their hand and arms to show length or height for example.
  3. Beat gestures are rhythmic movements to show emphasis.
  4. Deictic gestures consist of pointing to the referent. One would say go there or sit here and point towards the board or a chair, for example.

These gestures may enhance communication and help in language acquisition.

Social relationships

Use of language to further social relationships may not exactly transfer as learners struggle with English. This "interactional language" has as its objectives "the establishment and maintenance of cordial social relationships."

Speakers talk about safe topics, such as the weather, and shift topics a lot. ESL students may wonder why there is so much concern over such topics, mistakingly believing that the native speaker really wants a detailed explanation of the atmospheric conditions.

The learner assumes that the speaker is sending a message using "transactional language," which is "message-oriented, with a focus on content and a concern for getting things done in the real world."

Why learn the culture?

These elements are stressed in the ACTFL Standards for foreign language education and are applicable to ESL:

2.1 Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied.

This standard focuses on the practices that are derived from the traditional ideas and attitudes (perspectives) of a culture. Cultural practices refer to patterns of behavior accepted by a society and deal with aspects of culture such as rites of passage, the use of forms of discourse, the social "pecking order," and the use of space. In short, they represent the knowledge of "what to do when and where."

Practical applications

Students will need practice in some basic encounters common in everyday life. For example, learners need to be able to predict regular speaker change in conversation and the verbal and nonverbal signs involved.

Practicing routines and role playing will help set the material in deep memory. Another possible aid is videos that show the social functions of the language.