Seeing isn't required to gesture like a native speaker

March 21, 2016, Association for Psychological Science
Seeing isn't required to gesture like a native speaker

People the world over gesture when they talk, and they tend to gesture in certain ways depending on the language they speak. Findings from a new study including blind and sighted participants suggest that these gestural variations do not emerge from watching other speakers make the gestures, but from learning the language itself.

"Adult who are blind from birth also gesture when they talk, and these resemble the gestures of sighted adults speaking the same . This is quite interesting, since blind speakers cannot be learning these language-specific gestures by watching other speakers gesture," explains psychological scientist and lead researcher Seyda Özçaliskan of Georgia State University.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

While research had shown that speakers of different languages used gestures in different ways, the origin of these differences was not clear. Özçaliskan and colleagues Ché Lucero and Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago realized that they might be able to answer the question by comparing the gestures produced by sighted and congenitally blind individuals who speak the same language.

If people learn to gesture by watching other speakers of the same language, they hypothesized, then individuals who are blind from birth would not produce gestures similar to those of sighted speakers. But if people learn to gesture as a function of learning the language itself, then blind and sighted individuals who speak the same language would gesture in similar ways.

The researchers decided to focus specifically on gestures related to motion across space, which tend to show considerable variation across languages. English speakers, for example, typically combine both the manner of motion (e.g., running) and the path of motion (e.g., entering) into a single gesture. Turkish speakers, on the other hand, produce separate gestures to indicate manner and path.

Özçaliskan and colleagues recruited 40 congenitally blind adults—20 native English speakers and 20 native Turkish speakers—to participate in the study. They also recruited 40 sighted speakers of each language.

The participants were presented with three-dimensional dioramas that contained a series of figurines depicting motion across space. Some of the scenes showed a figure making a path to a landmark (e.g., running into a house), some showed the figure making a path over a landmark (e.g., flipping over a beam), and others showed a figure making a path from a landmark (e.g., running away from a motorcycle).

Participants explored the scene, using their hands to touch and feel the components; they were told that although the figurine appeared three times in the scene, they should think of her movement as representing a single continuous motion. The participants were then asked to describe the scene.

The results showed that speakers' patterns of gestures diverged according to the language they spoke. Regardless of whether they were sighted or blind, Turkish speakers produced more separated sentence units—in both speech and gesture—compared to English speakers. And sighted and blind English speakers produced more conflated sentence units in their speech and gestures than did Turkish speakers.

"We now know that blind speakers do not all gesture in the same generic way," Goldin-Meadow explains. "Rather, their gestures resemble those of other speakers of the same language."

While the study focused on speech and gesture in English and Turkish, the researchers note that these two languages represent a broader pattern in the world's languages. When it comes to expressing motion in space, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Icelandic, and Serbo-Croatian are similar to English, while French, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese cluster with Turkish.

"Together, our findings show that gestures that are produced with speech carry the imprint of the language that they accompany even in the absence of access to native gesture patterns, marking speech as the source of cross-linguistic variation in gesture," Özçaliskan concludes.

Explore further: Hand gestures improve learning in both signers and speakers

More information: S. O zcal skan et al. Is Seeing Gesture Necessary to Gesture Like a Native Speaker?, Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616629931

Related Stories

Hand gestures improve learning in both signers and speakers

August 19, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Spontaneous gesture can help children learn, whether they use a spoken language or sign language, according to a new report.

Children with brain lesions able to use gestures important to language learning

February 20, 2013
Children with brain lesions suffered before or around the time of birth are able to use gestures – an important aspect of the language learning process– to convey simple sentences, a Georgia State University researcher ...

Sign language recruits the same neural systems as spoken language

August 28, 2015
(Medical Xpress)—Sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL) comprise the same structural characteristics as spoken language, including tight grammatical constraints and rich expressiveness. Nonetheless, because ...

Gestures research suggests language instinct in young children

June 5, 2014
Young children instinctively use a 'language-like' structure to communicate through gestures.

Recommended for you

Junk food diet raises depression risk, researchers find

December 18, 2018
A diet of fast food, cakes and processed meat increases your risk of depression, according to researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Looking on bright side may reduce anxiety, especially when money is tight

December 17, 2018
Trying to find something good in a bad situation appears to be particularly effective in reducing anxiety the less money a person makes, possibly because people with low incomes have less control over their environment, according ...

Levels of gene-expression-regulating enzyme altered in brains of people with schizophrenia

December 14, 2018
A study using a PET scan tracer developed at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has identified, for the first time, epigenetic differences between the brains of individuals ...

Self-perception and reality seem to line-up when it comes to judging our own personality

December 14, 2018
When it comes to self-assessment, new U of T research suggests that maybe we do have a pretty good handle on our own personalities after all.

Video game players frequently exposed to graphic content may see world differently

December 13, 2018
People who frequently play violent video games are more immune to disturbing images than non-players, a UNSW-led study into the phenomenon of emotion-induced blindness has shown.

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.