The Body Language of Bilinguals

Posted by:  |  Category: Bicultural Vida, Daily Blog


Photo credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

When thinking about Spanglish, I usually think about the words we use day-to-day.  Phrases like “Want your agua?” pass through my lips all the time. I keep trying to remind myself to speak en Espanol, not in English, but lots of the time what comes out is our familiar old friend, Spanglish.  Something I’ve only recently started to think about is the body language that accompanies my Spanish-speaking Latinidad and my English speaking American identity.  They are very different, and something I usually don’t even think about, let alone write about.

Marisol’s body language is about 90% Latina; she gives everyone a hug hello and goodbye, at a minimum. Often a generous kiss is given as well. She went through a stage where almost all she did was kiss, kiss, kiss when visiting people. It was adorable, but not very sanitary!  Her physical therapists and doctors are charmed by her hugs and I encourage her to continue these greetings.  It’s the way I was raised to greet people and the way I still do, often, at least.

As with language though, children learn from watching the grownups around them and at her last doctor’s visit, Mari very politely offered her doctor a handshake hello and goodbye. It was still charming, and sweet, but caught me off-gaurd.  I didn’t think she had picked up on how to switch body languages in different contexts, yet.

For me, growing up, there was really just one big shift for most of my childhood–school. At school, I did not hug or kiss almost anyone because it wasn’t what was done.  Outside of school, when people came over or I visited, then I could be more natural in my body language. It was only as a teenager that I realized some of my friends parents did not do the whole hugging thing and I learned to shake hands when welcomed into people’s homes.  Perhaps it just wasn’t as cute to be hugged by a high schooler, but that was when I remember really adapting.  Since then, I still usually hug guests at my house, but wait to see what people do when I am a guest at someone else’s house.  Often hugs enter the relationship once a friendship is established, instead of as a matter of course.

So, it was surprising to see that Marisol had already picked up on how my body language is different with her doctors than with family and friends.  It was also affirming because it made me reflect on how she does usually communicate physically with others and with us in a way that is very Latino–there is a lot of hugging and kissing and just general affection in our household.  I’ve always appreciated that warmth about my family and my culture and I am happy to see that I am passing it on, albeit without ever really intending to.

I think that as she grows older, it will be fun to be a bit more conscious of noticing the different body languages around us and in the world at large.  We learned recently that it’s customary for Armenians to do the double kiss, one on each cheek, as opposed to our own single kiss on one cheek approach.  As my friend and I tried to give the proper number of cheek kisses, this resulted in, I think, a total of three kisses, and a good laugh!  I so often think of language and culture as being embodied by words, dress, food, and traditions, when they are also in our very bodies. It’s something I look forward to learning about together!

Recent Posts