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Where Spoken Languages Divide, Gestures May Offer a Bridge

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: word order and the mind.

A new study suggests that people naturally gesture in the order of subject-object-verb, regardless of the rules of their spoken language. Susan Goldin-Meadow is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago.

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "I did this study in part because of the work that I have been doing on deaf children who are too deaf to acquire spoken language. I've been studying in China and America and in Turkey and now in Nicaragua, and in none of those places have these particular children been exposed to sign language. So they use gesture to make up their own languages.

"What we see in the deaf children is they tend to indicate objects that are acted upon before they gesture the actions. We might say 'beat the drum' but the kid would produce a gesture for the drum before producing a gesture for the beating action."

AA: "So kind of like 'drum beat.'"

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Yes, 'drum beat.'"

RS: "What they actually see -- I mean, the bigger object, the most important thing first, and then what action is occurring."

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "You could think about it either way. So we can have an intuition that the most important thing to do is to get the object out there and then to s ay the action. The other possibility, however, is to think that if you have the action out there, then it tells you what the object is doing and what role it's going to play, and therefore you could sort of -- it almost sets the stage for the role that the object is going to play."

AA: "And so these findings with deaf children led you to explore how people gesture -- people who can speak and have spoken language."

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Right, we wanted to force people to 'talk' in gesture and to see what would come out."

RS: "Why would you want to do that?"

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Well, in part to see whether -- what we expected, actually, was that the language I speak would influence the gestures that I create. But what in fact we found is that people differ in the spoken language they use, but they don't differ in the gestured languages they use. And what it suggests is that this sort of order that you find in gesture is, first of all, not influenced by language.

"And, secondly, it looks like it's a pretty basic and robust pattern that's found across all speakers independent of the language that you use. So it suggests that maybe there's a cognitive underpinning to it -- that maybe we think about the world in this particular way, despite the fact that we talk about it in different ways."

RS: "So the same thing that you found with deaf children you found in English, Mandarin, Spanish and Turkish speakers."

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "For the most part, yes."

AA: "Let me ask you about the standard structure in English, we know, is subject-verb-object."


AA: "Now what about the other languages you studied."

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "So in Spanish it's the same. In Turkish it's subject-object-verb."

AA: "So for example?"

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "'Girl drum beat,' as opposed to 'girl beat drum.'"

AA: "And Mandarin?"

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "In Mandarin it actually varies as a function of whether the action crosses space or not. So I might say 'girl drum beat,' but 'girl give drum to boy.' So it might be S-O-V when you're talking about an action in place, but S-V-O when you're talking about moving an object to another place. What I've heard is that Mandarin is changing in its word order, and consequently you find variability. So in our speakers, they were more variable than either the Turkish speakers or the English or Spanish speakers."

RS: "Do you think this gives people around the world new hope that they can communicate?"

AA: "Well, let me ask you, with the Olympics going on, do you imagine that this sort of hard-wired, default subject-object-verb sentence structure is helping people communicate at the Games in Beijing?"

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Well, it's hard to know. I don't know whether this is hard-wired, so let's start with that assumption. It may be something that we develop, so I don't know whether it's hard-wired or not. But I do think it's robust, and in that sense it might make it easier for all of us to think in these ways.

"And consequently, if people are trying to communicate by gesture, maybe it'd be better for them to just not talk at all, and gesture. [Laughter] Because when you're gesturing, well, if you think about it, when you're gesturing along with your talk, your gestures fit the talk, so we gesture differently.

"I mean, initially we started to do this study and we've shown already that people gesture differently when they talk English, than when they talk Spanish and when they talk Turkish. There are differences in how we gesture. So it might be easier for people at the Olympics to get along if they stopped talking and just gestured!"

AA: We'll have more on this topic of gestures and spoken language next week with Susan Goldin-Meadow from the University of Chicago. And that's all for WORDMASTER this week. Archives are at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.