To Gesture Like a Native Speaker.

Is Seeing Gesture Necessary to Gesture Like a Native Speaker?” by Şeyda Özçalışkan, Ché Lucero, and Susan Goldin-Meadow (Psychol Sci. 2016 May;27(5):737-47) is an intriguing study; the abstract:

Speakers of all languages gesture, but there are differences in the gestures that they produce. Do speakers learn language-specific gestures by watching others gesture or by learning to speak a particular language? We examined this question by studying the speech and gestures produced by 40 congenitally blind adult native speakers of English and Turkish (n = 20/language), and comparing them with the speech and gestures of 40 sighted adult speakers in each language (20 wearing blindfolds, 20 not wearing blindfolds). We focused on speakers’ descriptions of physical motion, which display strong cross-linguistic differences in patterns of speech and gesture use. Congenitally blind speakers of English and Turkish produced speech that resembled the speech produced by sighted speakers of their native language. More important, blind speakers of each language used gestures that resembled the gestures of sighted speakers of that language. Our results suggest that hearing a particular language is sufficient to gesture like a native speaker of that language.

Compare “Why people gesture when they speak” by Jana M. Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow (Nature Vol. 396 [19 November 1998], p. 228): “Gesture does not depend on either a model or an observer, and thus appears to be integral to the speaking process itself.”


  1. David Marjanović says

    More important, blind speakers of each language used gestures that resembled the gestures of sighted speakers of that language.

    I suppose that depends on metaphors that are inbuilt in the language, e.g. whether the future is in front of you or comes at you from behind. I make such gestures, to some extent…

    Our results suggest that hearing a particular language is sufficient to gesture like a native speaker of that language.

    …while I don’t make gestures that aren’t blatant metaphors, yet most people do. Many make horizontal stirring motions that may mean “I’m developing a flow of argument”, for example. That’s dependent on culture, but really not likely to be determined by language, so probably not learnable if you can’t see it.

  2. When I travel in Asia gestures are of some interest – especially those connected with giving directions. In Sarawak recently, certain configurations of an upheld thumb seemed to betoken an indirect route involving corners and turns. Not much practical use to me, alas.

    I arrived in Bali yesterday: a trip decided on suddenly for a particular reason. I’ll be noting such things here too.

    Meanwhile I’m reminded of some reading I did a few weeks ago on understandings and communications concerning spatial orientation, across different cultures and languages. Cognitive linguistics. Away from my library now, and I can’t remember the author or title. But a striking theme was the ability of some speakers to manage without any use of left or right – notions foreign to them and their language.

    One speaker of an indigenous Australian language told his interlocutor to watch out for the dangerous ant just north of his foot. Another was immediately able to point in any requested direction in no matter what geographical situation and absence of environmental clues. Or to point reliably toward the starting point of the trek, even in a canyon or a cave (if I recall with reasonable fidelity).

    A speaker was found to be replicating exactly the directional gestures of another at a different location who had been describing the same sequence of events, but with very accurate alterations reflecting his positional difference. Both therefore seemed to have a fully objective mindmap of the events and their differing orientations with respect to them. Can we do that? I certainly can’t. In fact, I’m troubled right now not even knowing which way is north, in my room in Ubud. I’ll think it through and report back …

  3. I assume people growing up in a language will also interact with non-blind speakers who will ask questions or correct them if they don’t understand the gestures of the blind ones or the gestures are off. If the claim is that you could learn language X from an audio tape without interacting with native speakers and still would gesture like a native, color me skeptical.

  4. Noetica,

    I learned about it only recently from this text about Negev bedouins:

    wallāh jidditīh gēˁdih. ana wJimˁih rifīgna,
    By God, my grandmother was sitting. I (was there) with Jimˁih my brother,
    wēḥid ˁala rukbitha min al-jāl aš-šargiy,
    one on her knee from the-eastern side
    uwēḥid ˁala rukbitha min al-jāl al-ġarbiy
    and one on her knee from the western side

  5. Cardinal and personal directions are somewhat mixed in Biblical Hebrew. Basically a person imagines themselves staying facing East (for example, here) so that East = forward, West = behind, South = right, and North = left. There is more than one word for each direction and there are lots of nuances, to be sure. I doubt that Bedouin nanas have forward and backward knees, but maybe they imagine themselves differently in the default orientation.

  6. Compare the famous Japanese cartoon studio Ghibli, named by Miyazaki after an Italian WWII strike aircraft Caproni Ca.309 «Ghibli», in turn named after the Libyan name of sirocco (or well, i don’t know what the word means in Libyan) which literally means “from qibla/direction”.

    Wiktionary, ghibli, also قبلي “1. southern, meridional”

  7. Stu Clayton says
  8. Ghibli was here.

  9. We discussed absolute-direction languages in 2010 and 2019. They’re a great example of the perils of relying on our Euro-American intuitions (“How could anyone consistently know where north is??”).

  10. About “sirocco” wiktionary says this:

    Italian scirocco m “1. sirocco (hot southerly to southeasterly wind)”

    Likely from Old Occitan eissalot and its variants (e.g. eyssiroc), from Massalian Ancient Greek *ἐξαλώτης (*exalṓtēs), from ἔξαλος (éxalos, “out of the sea” → “wind from the southeast”). Traditionally thought to be a derivative of Arabic شرق‎ (šarq, “east”). Akin to Italian barocco. Compare Sicilian sciroccu.

    Derived terms: sciroccato (“weird”)


    Arabic شلوق šalūq or šilūq m “1. southeasterly wind, scirocco”

    From coastal African dialects, perhaps via Berber from Italian scirocco.

    Maltese xlokk m “1. scirocco; sirocco (hot southeastern wind) 2.the southeast”

    From Arabic شَلُوق‎ (šalūq), شَلُوك‎ (šalūk, “southeastern wind”), probably acquired through Italo-Romance, see Italian scirocco. A doublet may be at hand in xellug (“left”), which see.

    Maltese xellug m “1. left side, the left”

    Uncertain. Seemingly from Maghrebi Arabic شَلُوق‎ (šalūq, “southeastern wind, scirocco”), whence also—perhaps through Romance influence—Maltese xlokk (“scirocco”). The Arabic word itself is said to be of Berber origin and this may explain the final -g (as there does not appear to be any case of Arabic q becoming g in Maltese). The sense “left” then from “east” as the left side when facing the sun at noon. Here the question poses itself whether there is any relation between شَلُوق‎ (šalūq) and native Arabic شَرْق‎ (šarq, “east”). Furthermore it must be noted that Arabic has شِمال‎ (šimāl, “left”) from شَمال‎ (šamāl, “north”), thus based on the position at sunrise rather than noon.

    (also WP: Sirocco derives from šurūq (Arabic: شروق), verbal noun of šaraqa, related to the East, aš-šarq)

    Messy (akin to barocco….), but.

  11. Keith Ivey says

    South = right

    No doubt Welsh influence on Hebrew.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal names for points of the compass imply that you’re facing west. (Which, among other things, is why the western dialect is called “Toende”: tuon “in front.”)

  13. Wind and (even more) flight are motifs that recur in Studio Ghibli productions again and again. So the name seems fitting.

  14. So the Western world (including Russia and Tunisia) went south politically.

  15. I can’t help wondering what gesturing “like” a native speaker means. I mean, I’ve lived in Italy for 25 years and definitely gesture “like” a native speaker in the sense of waving behind me to indicate a time in the past, putting my fingers together to indicate fear, rubbing them to indicate money, shaking a flat hand up and down while touching my wrist to say let’s get out of here, and so on. But on the other hand, my gestures are off in all sorts of ways that are recognizable to a native speaker, and they always will be: the positions are too high or too low, the handshapes are weird, and so on. My gestural accent is simply much stronger than my spoken accent. Of course, Italian is a language with many more standard gestures than English and I’m not sure anyone would notice someone doing them “sort of wrong” in my own language. Where does Turkish fall on the gesticulatory scale?

  16. Biscia, your question is more fine-grained than the paper’s claim. They observe that Turks tend to illustrate both the direction and the manner of motion in one gesture and Americans tend to separate them (or more likely, not to illustrate the manner at all). This includes blind speakers as well.

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