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Is There a Correlation Between the Use of Representational Gestures and Self-Adaptors? Q&A with Dr. Elena Nicoladis

August 2, 2022

In the study, 'Is There a Correlation Between the Use of Representational Gestures and Self-Adaptors?' the research team tested the hypothesis that people who produce more representational gestures also produce more self-adaptors. A secondary purpose of the study was to test whether there were differences in gesture use related to bilinguals' profiency in their two languages. 

In this Q&A with Language Sciences, Dr. Elena Nicoladis discusses how representational gestures convey information, the ways in which representational gestures are used across cultures, and more!

Can you explain how using representational gestures while speaking can convey information?

Representational gestures are hand/arm movements that represent the referent, like someone pumping her arms at her sides while communicating about “running”. Representational gestures can emphasize the meaning (e.g., in the running example, maybe the speaker really wants to emphasize that she was running) and/or add information (e.g., maybe the speed of the pumping indicates how fast she was running even if there is nothing explicit in her speech about the speed).

What are some ways that people use self-adaptors?

Self-adaptors are self-touching hand/arm movements. They are most often used when speakers are nervous or anxious. Researchers have usually assumed that self-adaptors have no communicative function.

How are representational gestures are used differently across cultures? Can you provide some examples?

Researchers have generally worked with the assumption that the processes underlying representational gestures are human universals. That is, the communicative functions that give rise to representational gestures (such as emphasis or supplementing speech) are part of basic human sociocognitive processes.

That said, some studies have shown cross-cultural differences in the *frequency* of representational gesture use, at least in some communicative genres. For example, in one previous study, we found that Hindi first language speakers used fewer gestures than Spanish first language speakers when telling a story. We argued that the differences in gesture frequency reflect cross-cultural differences in story-telling style. In that study, we found that Hindi speakers told stories that focused on the moral or the point of the story while Spanish speakers focused on telling long, descriptive stories. We reasoned that when a story-telling style focuses on description, people use more gestures to illustrate the events they’re talking about.

In this study, did the gestures that the participants used in Punjabi and English differ when completing the origami task, or were there similarities between the gestures used in each language?

We found no differences in gesture frequency in Punjabi and English. Moreover, there was a positive correlation between how frequently the participants gestured in Punjabi and how frequently they gestured in English. These results suggest that gesture frequency is a characteristic of a particular individual. In other words, some people gesture a lot while speaking and others do not.

Can you expand on why language proficiency isn’t a straightforward predictor of gesture production?

The argument that language proficiency is related to gesture production is based on the idea that gestures can be used to compensate for language when a speaker does not know the language well. In this particular study, the Punjabi-English bilinguals were highly fluent in both of their languages so it is possible that they did not “need” gestures to make their meaning clear.


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