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Language Learning: If Gestures Could Talk

Are you a hand-speaker? Do you punctuate your sentences with wide, sweeping arm gestures, or sharp hand cuts through the air signaling an end of subject? Then maybe this will, uh, speak to you!

Photo via Giphy


In truth, a lot of us gesture when we speak. Watching someone get flustered with their argument or passionate about the point they’re making, and no doubt you’ll see some sort of arm/hand movement that’s used to enhance what they are trying to say. Other people appear incapable of having any kind of conversation without flamboyant movement to accompany it. So we don’t really need to ask why we gesture, because that’s already pretty clear.

Getting your point across

There are many professions or instances when hand gestures make a huge difference to the things we are saying. If you’re a foreign language teacher, for instance, you learn to use simple gestures that your students will come to understand mean to follow certain actions, particularly for new learners; from an index finger twirled in the air to signify a repetition, to an opening of your hands to show you want books to be opened.

Photo via Giphy

Are you a fan of TED talks? Motivational speakers? How many presentations have you watched where the speak keeps their arms perfectly still? We’d wager not many; in front of an audience, the power of using gesture to emphasize what we want to draw others’ attention to  – to get, and keep their attention – is literally in our hands. And what a gesture generally gives to the speaker is something that is priceless when you’re in front of an audience; it gives us confidence, an air of authority, being able to direct where we want people to look, or listen. There are workshops on how to do these things well; gestures aren’t only quirks of personality, they are tools.

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How about politicians? We love to mock them, and a lot of them deserve that, but watch any politician speak and you’d be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t draw your attention to certain policies or ideas with the use of gestures with their hands. If they want to show they’re passionate about something, to persuade voters that they should vote for their way of thinking, no doubt they will do this by emphasizing their point with gestures. Think about it; if  a politician can learn to reach their audience by reading from a script of words written by someone else, how would they not learn to do the same with certain movements to show they really do care?

GIF via Giphy


Michael C. Corballis is a psychologist who believes that the origins of the human language are in gesture. That along with all the grunts and squeaks our words evolved out of, things like pointing to show what we want others to look at, or where we expect them to go, played their part in the making of the languages we speak today. In our example above with the foreign language teacher, we seem to be teaching by gesturing, so that would support this theory. Do we not do the same when we teach toddlers to speak – in fact, do those same children not start to teach us by the age of around ten months, when they start to gesture at things to get our attention to facilitate their needs?

GIF via Giphy

The power of suggestion

Of course, it isn’t just our hands that speak for us. Watch any of your favourite TV or film characters, and you’ll recognise their true feelings about something before they even open their mouths. It’s the eyebrow raise, the nervous cuffing of the back of the neck, the awkward throat clearing. It’s communicating without speaking a single word; how is that not a part of our language?

A good example of this is Friends, and you probably didn’t even need the Gif to know which one we meant. What was probably supposed to be a one-time gesture for Ross to give that was his way of flipping someone off without flipping them off, became a part of the Friends vocabulary throughout the series.

And of course, art imitates life, and the things we see on our screens spills over into the things we do ourselves. Be honest; have you never at least attempted to give a Vulcan salute?