VOLUME 28 NO. 10 | FEBRUARY 28 - MARCH 6, 2009


You are what you gesture

Last updated 2-26-09 at 3:04 p.m.

By Peter Jo
Northwest Asian Weekly

The next time you talk with a friend, try sitting on your hands while speaking.

If you find that some-thing is lacking in the conversation, it may be because you have eliminated one impor-tant aspect of the ex-change.

When it has to do with interpersonal communication, it turns out that
spoken words may only send a part of the message. While our overall “body language” may communicate some general emotions, our hand gestures play a more specific role in getting our point across.

Dr. Spencer Kelly, a neuroscientist at Colgate University, investigates the connection between hand gestures and language. “Hand gestures,” he said, “are ubiquitous across all languages and cultures. …Gestures and speech form an integrated system.”

In research to be published in “Language and Cognitive Processes” this year, he showed that the use of hand gestures may actually help in learning a foreign language.

“Babies gesture before they speak,” said Kelly, suggesting that this mode of communication may in fact be wired into our brains. “Gestures help us express thoughts or ideas in a concrete way.”

The function of gestures is actually twofold. They help us communicate our thoughts to another person, but they also help us find the right words to say. Experts have generally acknowledged that body movement may have a significant relationship with cognition. “Gestures help us think through and articulate our words,” Kelly said.

One phenomenon that clearly demonstrates this point is the observation that blind people will actually gesture when they speak to other blind people. As there is no expectation that the blind individual will recognize or understand hand gestures, Kelly and his colleagues conclude that these gestures play a role in the cognitive processing of the speaker.

The implications of Kelly’s research in learning a foreign language are exciting. In his recent experiment, adults were taught Japanese words both using and not using gestures. In follow-up testing, it was evident that words taught with gestures were recalled with greater accuracy.

It is important to note that the gestures were not random but were a form of “acting out” the verb. For example, subjects learned the Japanese word for drink (nomu) while observing a gesture that involved bringing hands to the mouth as if one was holding a cup. Kelly says that the gesture needs to be consistent with the meaning of the word.

“Gesturing may be a useful tool in helping people learn and remember new words. … While arbitrary gestures may help a little bit in learning a word, the evidence suggests it doesn’t help nearly as much if it isn’t related to the actual word.”

Another aspect of the experiment involved measuring brain activity as “event-related potentials.” When words were taught with gestures, a unique brain pattern appeared that was not present when words were taught without gestures. In other words, teaching a foreign language while using gestures is not just a trick to get students to recall a few more words. It actually generates different patterns of brain activity that are useful in learning and memorizing.

If you’ve ever learned a second language, you know that learning vocabulary words is just one part of the experience. Mastery of grammar, syntax, intonation, and other variables often differentiates native speakers from second language learners. As you might imagine, gestures play a greater role in teaching some components of language than others.

“Gestures help specific aspects of second language learning,” said Kelly. He does note that other forms of “body language” may be useful in learning some of the other components.

For example, his colleagues at Colgate University have discovered that the best way to learn intonation is to watch the speaker’s lip movements.

Kelly’s research has the potential to transform language classrooms forever. When learning a foreign language, Kelly suggests that it is best to use all the tools at your disposal. The teacher should gesture when teaching concrete vocabulary terms, and Kelly recommends that the student mimic the gesture. (end)

Peter Jo can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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