G is for Gesture

26 05 2013
cruz the smallest grapes

“the smallest grapes”

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.

Chilton cover3.  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).

"in the middle of nowhere"

“in the middle of nowhere”

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.

"How do you call it?"

“How do you call it?”

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.

Marianne Gullberg in Barcelona

Marianne Gullberg in Barcelona


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:


M is for Mind

22 04 2012

Words come out of the mouth and go into the ear. But they’re stored in the mind. And retrieved from the mind. And understood in the mind. They’re also learned in the mind.

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom – especially from the point of view of cognitive psychology. ‘Language is instantiated in the minds and therefore the brains of language users, so that linguistics is to be regarded as a branch of psychology’. Thus argues Ray Jackendoff (2002: xiv). Chomsky, of course, took this view to an extreme: the observable messiness of language in use (or performance) ‘surely cannot constitute the actual subject matter of linguistics’ (1965: 4). Rather, ‘linguistic theory is mentalistic, since it is concerned with discovering a mental reality [or competence] underlying such behaviour’ (ibid.).

Theories of second language acquisition follow suit: ‘Second language acquisition is first and foremost a mental process – one that occurs in a behavioural and social context, to be sure, but fundamentally a matter of acquiring a new knowledge system.  Cognition and cognitive factors, therefore, are central to any account of how and why SLA works’ (Long & Richards 2001, p.vii) . Anything else, such as the social contexts in which language is used, or the physical stuff of the brain itself, or even the body in which the mind/brain is housed, are considered marginal, messy, uninteresting – mere noise.

The earliest example I could find of a computer in a coursebook: Headway Intermediate (1986)

Not only is language a mental phenomenon, according to this view, but the ‘mind’ of which it is a product is construed as a kind of computer (or as Pinker [1997: 92] charmingly puts it ‘the on-board computer of a robot made of tissue’). Hence, ‘mental life can be explained in terms of a computational process’ (Johnson-Laird, 1988: 26). Or, put another way, cognition – and, by extension, learning – is basically information-processing.  Furthermore, because of the limitations on the amount of attention that humans can allocate to any particular cognitive task at any one time, this processing is necessarily controlled before it is automatic. In short, humans are ‘limited capacity processors of information’.

This applies equally to language learning, both first and other. As McLaughlin (1987: 133) puts it:

Within this framework, second-language learning is viewed as the acquisition of complex cognitive skill.  To learn a second language is to learn a skill, because various aspects of the task must be practised and integrated into fluent performance.  This requires the automatization of component sub-skills.  Learning is a cognitive process, because it is thought to involve internal representations that regulate and guide performance.

Because learning is a cognitive process, this ‘information processing’ view of learning is known as a cognitivist one, and the metaphor that best captures it is MIND IS COMPUTER.  Associated with this model, therefore, we find a host of information-processing terms like input, intake, output, feedback, automatization, filters, as well as the term processing itself. And, because cognition is implicated, we find a further set of terms like noticing, attention, consciousness-raising, and restructuring.

from Reward (1994)

How does this actually impact on current methodology?  On the one hand, you could argue that all these various models of mind and language operate at a level far removed from actual classroom practice, and that teachers carry on doing what they’ve always done – that is, teaching effectively.  On the other hand, you could also argue that the ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied,  … and so on.

It is a model of language learning that, arguably, turns the learner into an automaton –  ‘a robot made of tissue’.  As David Block (2003: 97) notes, ‘in the ideal world of cognitive scientists, the human mind is still conceived of as dependent on external stimuli to which it responds…The adoption of the computer metaphor of input-output does not disguise the fact that there is still a view of mental behaviour as systematic and mechanistic’.

Is there an alternative model – an alternative metaphor, even?

Block (2003: 93) goes on to argue that there are ‘a growing number of scholars who subscribe to the view that mental processes are as social as they are individual and external as they are internal’. (Some of these approaches I’ve referenced in previous posts, such as E is for Ecology, A is for Affordance and B is for Body). Contrasting cognitive with what they loosely call sociocultural approaches, Foster and Ohta (2005:  403) note that, for the latter

Language development is essentially a social process.  These approaches view mind as distributed and learning as something inter-mental, embedded in social interaction.  This means that individuals and environments mutually constitute one another and persons are not considered to be separable from the environments and interactions through which language development occurs.  In this view, knowledge is not owned solely by the learner, but is also a property of social settings and the interface between person and social context.

Elementary Matters (1997)

The distributed nature of mind is a core tenet of theories of ‘situated cognition’, neatly captured here by Clark (2011: 70):

Extended systems theorists… reject the image of mind as a kind of input-output sandwich with cognition as the filling….  Instead, we confront an image of the local mechanisms of human cognition quite literally bleeding out into body and world.

What, I wonder, would be the characteristics of a methodology that subscribed to this distributed, ‘leaky’, and co-adaptive view of mind? And, specifically, what are the correlates of input and of noticing, in this alternative to a computational, information-processing model of language learning?


Block, D.  (2003) The Social Turn In Second Language Acquisition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Clark, A. (2011) Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

Foster, P. and Ohta, A. (2005) ‘Negotiation for meaning and peer assistance in second language classrooms’, Applied Linguistics, 26, 3,

Jackendoff, R. (2002) Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson-Laird, P.  N.  (1988) The Computer and the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Long, M. and Richards, J. (2001) ‘Series editors’ preface’, in Robinson, P.  (Ed.)  Cognition and Second Language Instruction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second-and Language Learning, London: Edward Arnold.

Pinker, S. (1997) How The Mind Works, London: Penguin.