Gestures Are Handy for Speaking and Thinking

Why you talk with your hands, even when you're on the phone.

Lauren Gawne, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #575

Even Blind People Use Gestures

These differences in gesturing patterns appear to be related to the structure of the language, and not learned. We know this because a recent study by Şeyda Özçalışkan, Ché Lucero and Susan Goldin-Meadow built on Özyürek and Kita’s work, but focused on the gestures of blind Turkish and English speakers. These participants were given the same job as their sighted counterparts: describing situations that included motion. The results for both Turkish and English speakers who had been blind from birth was consistent with the earlier study. That is to say, even though the blind English speakers in the study had never seen someone gesture in a way that included both manner and trajectory, they did so in their descriptions of the events. Similarly, the blind Turkish participants separated the motion and trajectory in both their speech and gestures.

All Turkish speakers gestured significantly differently from all English speakers, regardless of sightedness. This means that these particular gestural patterns are something that is deeply linked to the grammatical properties of a language, and not something that we learn from looking at other speakers. 

We gesture because it can be helpful, and to make sure the other person knows just which cake we want. Gesture is not only useful in communicating with others, but it helps us to think as well. It also means that our hands can tell us things about the structure of language, in the grammar and in our brain, that we didn’t notice before.

That segment was written by Lauren Gawne, who blogs at superlinguo.com and is the co-host of the Lingthusiasm podcast. Thanks for blowing my mind.

And a little follow up from me: As I was editing this piece I agonized for far too long over the phrase exactly the same when we were describing giving instructions for a game: The instructions were exactly the same. I know some of you would notice and possibly comment that it's one of those phrases that regularly shows up in lists of unnecessarily redundant phrases. But here's the thing: Changing exactly the same to identical sounded wrong to me. The sentence lost its oomph and it also felt like it lost emphasis on the sameness, so I decided to keep it. Editing is about making something good, not about slavishly following rules. As I've said before, redundancy isn't always wrong and can sometimes help add emphasis, like when we add myself to a sentence like I baked the cake myself. So that's all to say, please don't write to me about exactly the same. I did it on purpose.


Hostetter, Autumn B., Martha W. Alibali & Sheree M. Schrager. 2011. If you don't already know, I'm certainly not going to show you!: Motivation to communicate affects gesture production. In Gale Stam and Mika Ishino (eds.) Integrating Gestures: The interdisciplinary nature of gesture, 61–74. John Benjamins. 

Kita, Sotaro, Alibali, Martha W., & Chu, Mingyuan. (2017). How Do Gestures Influence Thinking and Speaking? The Gesture-for-Conceptualization Hypothesis. Psychological Review. Advance online publication.

Özçalışkan, Şeyda, Ché Lucero & Susan Goldin-Meadow. 2016. Is Seeing Gesture Necessary to Gesture Like a Native Speaker? Psychological Science 27(5), 737–747.

Özyürek, Asli & Sotaro Kita. 1999. Expressing manner and path in English and Turkish: Differences in speech, gesture, and conceptualization. In Twenty-first Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 507-512. Erlbaum.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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