A couple of weeks ago the University of Barcelona hosted a week-long course on Gesture and SLA, run by Dr Marianne Gullberg, Professor of Psycholinguistics at Lund University in Sweden. Marianne has to be one of the leading experts on gesture and language, having published and researched extensively on the subject. While it’s still fresh, then, here are ten things that I think every language teacher should know about gesture.
1. Gesturing with the hands is just one of the many types of non-verbal behaviours that we use when we communicate, others being voice-quality, facial expressions, eye gaze, head nods, body orientation, shoulder shrugs, and so on. But of all these, gesture is probably the bodily behaviour that is most directly tied to linguistic meaning.
2. Gesture occupies one end of a continuum of communicative hand actions, the other end of which is sign language. Pantomime occupies a point midway on this continuum. But, unlike sign language and mime, gesture doesn’t substitute for speech: rather it co-occurs with it. Nor is it a conventionalized system that, like signing, can be taught systematically.
3. Near the purely gestural end of the continuum are what are called ‘emblems’: those gestures that have become conventionalised within a culture to represent certain meanings, such as the scribbling gesture that means ‘bring me the bill’ (in a restaurant) or the thumbs-up sign in many cultures. (The picture on the left is the cover of a book of Spanish gesture emblems [Green 1968]). Emblems are, arguably, teachable, but represent only a small subset of what most people do when they gesture while talking (despite the fascination that emblems have for amateur cultural anthropologists).
4. Most gestures are either ‘beats’ – rhythmic, often chopping, motions that act as a kind of ‘prosodic highlighting’ (McNeill 2012), or pointing of some kind, or (the most interesting from a psycholinguistic point of view) the metaphoric/iconic type of gesture, as when we make a wide arc with both hands (like Penelope Cruz in this pic) to represent ‘expansiveness’. Pragmatic gestures – such as indicating a question (‘How do you call it?’) – are also common.
5. Gesture is non-verbal but that doesn’t mean it is non-linguistic. In fact, speech and gesture are inextricably linked, forming an integrated (or ‘coupled’) system. As McNeill (2012: 31) puts it, ‘gestures and synchronous speech are … co-expressive but not redundant: they express the same idea each in its own way – often each its own aspects of it’. Thus, gesture is not just an ‘add-on’, a way of ornamenting speech. Gesture and speech originate together, and are precisely synchronized.
6. But gestures are more than simply communicative: we gesture when we can’t be seen gesturing, such as on the phone, or in the dark, or talking to ourselves. This suggests that gesture has some kind of self-regulating function, that it is a physical embodiment of thought, that we ‘think with our hands’.
7. While gesturing is a universal feature of speech, there are identifiable cross-cultural differences in gesture systems. These are mainly with regard to emblems (the ‘thumbs-up’ gesture, for example) and also in terms of the extent of ‘gestural space’. But, because gesture and language are closely linked, and because gestures are often representational, they can reveal ways in which different languages construe the world. Gullberg (2011) herself has researched the ways that ‘putting an object on a surface’ is differently represented in some languages, and how there is a close match between the semantics of the verbs in these languages and the characteristics of the gesture. Interestingly, cross-linguistic transfer effects have been observed in learners.
8. On the subject of language learning, there is evidence to suggest that language learners gesture more in their second language than in their first: this is largely because they use more pragmatic gestures (e.g. hand flapping) to compensate for disfluencies, such as when searching for a word. But, contrary to expectations, perhaps, learners only occasionally use representative gestures as a substitute for lexical gaps. Research (e.g. Gregersen et al 2009) also shows that the more proficient the learner, the more meaning-oriented are their gestures.
9. So, how does gesture aid language acquisition? In terms of reception, the gestures of others (including, of course, the teacher) may help make input comprehensible by, for example, ‘speech parsing’ – i.e. helping learners find ‘the words in the noise’. They may also help link language and cognition by activating mirror neurons: seeing you gesture makes me feel as if I’m gesturing, and hence I’m connected to the thinking that motivated the gesture.
10. The learner’s own gestures may also play an important role in language learning. It’s generally accepted that any kind of learning task is aided when the learner can ‘off-load’ the cognitive effort involved on to an external representation. Hence learners will gesture a lot when doing a speaking task, even when they are performing behind a screen and so cannot be seen. ‘It is possible that L2 learners’ gestures reflect their attempts to reduce the processing load of keeping words, grammar, and the relationships between entities in mind at the same time as planning what to say next. In this sense, gestures may help learners to keep talking’ (Gullberg 2008: 293). Moreover, gesturing while learning seems to improve recall, e.g. of lexis. And, very importantly, gestures help build rapport and confer on their users the status of a legitimate interlocutor. ’Learners who are seen to gesture are often more positively evaluated on proficiency than those who are not’ (ibid.)
Moral: if your students have a speaking test, encourage them to gesture.
Green, J.R. (1968) A Gesture Inventory for the Teaching of Spanish, Philadelphia: Chilton Books.
Gregersen, T., Olivares-Cuhat, G. & Storm, J. (2009) ‘An examination of L1 and L2 gesture use: what role does proficiency play? Modern Language Journal, 93/2, 195-208.
Gullberg, M. (2008) ‘Gestures and second language acquisition,’ in Robinson, P., & Ellis, N.C. (eds) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, London: Routledge.
Gullberg, M. (2011) ‘Thinking, speaking and gesturing about motion in more than one language,’ in Pavlenko, A. (ed.) Thinking and Speaking in Two Languages, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
McNeill, D. (2012) How Language Began: Gesture and speech in human evolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The David Letterman interview from where the stills of Penelope Cruz were taken can be seen here: