Social Skills Series #13: Introduction to Paralanguage

The next few articles in this series will be all about paralanguage. You work hard to give your children a strong education in the proper use of words, but how much do you teach them about nonverbal communication? Paralanguage is the subset of nonverbal communication that includes voice tone, pitch, volume, and rate – everything about oral communication except for the actual words being used. In other words, when you speak, you are sending two messages at once: the message of the language, which is what you say, and the message of the paralanguage, which is how you say it.

So much of your effort in educating your child is focused on reading and writing, and with good reason – learning to read and write well and consistently will be of inestimable value for them in every stage of their education and throughout their long lives afterwards. Children who read and write well will often speak well, too, because they have a strong command of language. If they don’t have an understanding of paralanguage, however, they may encounter problems with communication, no matter how high their reading level or how impressive their vocabulary.

Most people learn and use paralanguage unconsciously, by instinct and osmosis. Your child may already have a strong grasp of paralanguage without any instruction in it. Here is a simple activity you can try with them to find out.

Sit across from each other (or in a circle if there are more than two of you). Start things off by reading one of the phrases below. Have your child say the same words back to you, but in a different way. See how many ways the two of you (or the circle) can say the same words, but in a different way. When you say the words differently, do they send a different message? What other phrases can mean different things when said in a different way?

  1. “I’m here.”
  2. “I’m done.”
  3. “There’s so much to do today.”
  4. “I didn’t know you would be here.”
  5. “I want to go.”
  6. “Thank you very much.”
  7. “Really? Do you think so?”
  8. “I hid the money somewhere.”

Have fun with that this week, and we’ll return next Wednesday for more information, stories, and activities on paralanguage.


RECOMMENDED: 101 Ways to Teach Children Social Skills by Lawrence E. Shapiro

Vanessa Farkas is a writer, musician, educator, and lifetime learner who worked at the Phoenix Education Foundation as a music teacher from 2010-2018 and has left to retrain and pursue a new career as a legal assistant. Her eight years at Phoenix have left her enriched with experiences and stories, and this series blends those stories and experiences with practical advice and perspectives on helping children develop social skills. Names have been changed.