Gesture's role in speaking, learning, and creating language

Annu Rev Psychol. 2013;64:257-83. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143802. Epub 2012 Jul 25.

Abstract

When speakers talk, they gesture. The goal of this review is to investigate the contribution that these gestures make to how we communicate and think. Gesture can play a role in communication and thought at many timespans. We explore, in turn, gesture's contribution to how language is produced and understood in the moment; its contribution to how we learn language and other cognitive skills; and its contribution to how language is created over generations, over childhood, and on the spot. We find that the gestures speakers produce when they talk are integral to communication and can be harnessed in a number of ways. (a) Gesture reflects speakers' thoughts, often their unspoken thoughts, and thus can serve as a window onto cognition. Encouraging speakers to gesture can thus provide another route for teachers, clinicians, interviewers, etc., to better understand their communication partners. (b) Gesture can change speakers' thoughts. Encouraging gesture thus has the potential to change how students, patients, witnesses, etc., think about a problem and, as a result, alter the course of learning, therapy, or an interchange. (c) Gesture provides building blocks that can be used to construct a language. By watching how children and adults who do not already have a language put those blocks together, we can observe the process of language creation. Our hands are with us at all times and thus provide researchers and learners with an ever-present tool for understanding how we talk and think.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Gestures*
  • Humans
  • Language Development
  • Language*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Sign Language
  • Speech / physiology*