Communicating Without Words

Using words is the most obvious way to communicate, but it’s not the only way.  It may not even necessarily be the best way.  There are times when words fail us, but communication is still needed.  Other times, using alternate ways of communicating may be more fun or more effective.

There are plenty of other ways to communicate than simply through words; some ways we do on purpose, others subconsciously.  Let’s check them out.


If you picture two people who don’t speak each other’s language trying to communicate with one another, you might imagine a lot of gesturing.  While it’s not helpful when done as frantically as I’ve seen in movies or as a game of charades, pointing to things and acting stuff out is definitely one way to communicate.  Drawing pictures is another way.

These are most effective when done simply: break down what you want to get across into smaller elements – a single word or idea – instead of trying to get to the point all at once.


Sometimes we don’t have to try so hard.  There are things we do naturally that are obvious to those who listen to and watch us, and that can go a long way to convey meaning.  Inflection, for instance, can demonstrate whether we are communicating a statement, command, demand, or exclamation.  Tone can inform the listener whether the speaker is pleased, angry, confused, intrigued, disappointed, skeptical, or whatever else.  Facial expressions and body language do these things as well.  If you at least know the context of the “conversation”, you can often use these cues to fill in the blanks.

Sure, you can’t have an in-depth conversation about philosophy or rocket science, but you can have a meaningful exchange about everyday topics without putting forth much effort.  Like I said, we naturally do these things.  And it’s not limited to delivering a message; we receive and interpret all this naturally as well, sometimes even subconsciously.


This next category is an extension of the previous, but while mood is macro, this is micro.  When we mentioned inflection above we were talking about sentences, but now think about how the inflection of a single word can affect its meaning.  We have another post on how to use your voice to convey meaning, so give that a read if you haven’t already.

Some words are or do what they describe.  Onomatopoeia is a great example.  Others aren’t so literal, but you can still alter your voice to reflect the meaning of a word (think about how we draw out ‘very’ for emphasis, or how we might say ‘easy’ with a care-free attitude).

Okay yes, there are obviously words involved here, despite the title of this article.  But the point is that even if someone doesn’t understand the actual definition of the words (especially if those same words were written down), they can still understand an approximate meaning based of the way in which you say it.


There’s some overlap between focus and body language.  The way someone stands might not only indicate their mood, but it might also show you what’s on their mind.  If you follow a person’s gaze, you might be able to figure out what they want, or maybe what’s bothering them.  What someone pays attention to informs the context; how they give it attention informs what they feel about it.

Be sure to read our Show, Don’t Tell article for more examples on how perception, breath, body language, and movement all communicate what we’re thinking.

Some masterful examples of how communication can be accomplished without words are through Pixar’s short films.  Watch some of them and see what you learn from their facial expressions, their movements, what they look at, how they breath, etc.  Even though nothing is said in most of them, you learn the character’s personalities and motivations; make note of how you know these things.

I’d love to dive in deeper to any one of these methods of communication, but it’s so rich a topic that we can’t fit it all in to a single article.  But rest assured: there are so many ways to communicate, and so much you can communicate with each of those ways.

Get more with Insider Access


Extra Video Content

more How-to-Teach grammar videos*

with intros, instructions, and summaries

*compared to free resources


Exclusive Supplemental Resources


posters & handouts

bonus notes


Advanced Features in Student Projects

search and filter

planning info

teaching tips

Context Matters

Are tomatoes fruit or vegetables?

The answers to many questions depend on context, so clearly establish the context first.

Read More »
language illuminated

Quick Guide to IPA Consonants

The International Phonetic Alphabet is used to specify sounds, or to help translate between languages with different alphabets. There’s lots of information out there on how to use it, but if you’re looking for a quick reference, this is it. (Part 1 of 2)

Read More »
teaching tips

Word Puzzle Tactics

Word Puzzles and Word Games are a fun, engaging, and effective way to practice vocabulary, spelling pronunciation, word-building, and more. If you’d like to try some with your students, here are some tips to give them.

Read More »
language illuminated

Translating Noun Cases

Many languages have noun cases. We don’t teach cases in English, but there definitely are some correlations between cases and English grammar. Maybe it would be a good idea to acknowledge some of the cases used in the students’ native tongue(s) and explain what English uses instead.

Read More »

Share This Post