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When It Comes to Gesturing, Don't Believe Everything You Hear

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: more of our discussion of gesture language.

RS: We don't mean formal sign language taught to deaf people, but the way we use our hands either with spoken language or in place of it. Think of the Olympics. With so many speakers of different languages coming together, hands and arms must really get a workout.

AA: As we said last week, a new study has found evidence that when speakers of different languages have to communicate only with gestures, they naturally follow a subject-object-verb, or S.O.V., word order, regardless of the rules of their spoken language.

RS: We discussed the findings and about gesturing in general with the lead author, University of Chicago psychology professor Susan Goldin-Meadow.

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "The lore is that northern Europeans gesture less than southern Europeans. But in fact, when people have done the studies, what they find is that northern Europeans gesture small and southern Europeans gesture big. So they gesture, you know, using their entire bodies and they use all of their hands, not just their fingers, and so it's much more visible.

"They also have more conventional gestures like emblems like an OK or a thumbs-up. But it's not clear that they gesture more than northern Europeans.

"You use gestures along with the structure of your language, and consistently with the structure of your language. And since the language is different structure, the gestures also differ."

AA: "For example?"

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "When people talk about the action of rolling down a hill, we say rolling down all in one phrase. And our gesture tends to be a rolling down phrase, so you can move your hand in a circle while moving it down.

"In Turkish, those two bits of information are put in separate phrases and their gestures tend to be separate. So, for example, you might do a little rolling motion -- a sort of round, rotating motion and then do a movement down. So they separate the meanings into two separate gestures."

AA: "Well, it's funny, because that's exactly what Rosanne was doing here in the studio when you said rolling down a hill, she started moving her finger around, but I don't know if you were going down at the same time or not."

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Well, as an English speaker, you're likely to go down at the same time. If you're a Turkish speaker, you're likely to do the rolling and then do the down."

RS: "So are gestures a universal language, or is it 'gesture as a foreign language'?"

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Well, gestures when used with speech are not universal. They look different and they fit with the language that you're using, the speech that you're using. Now what I think we've discovered, in a sense, is that when you take speech away and you force people to gesture, there may then be a universal language.

"We had thought that gesture language that you create when you're forced not to speak would be influenced by the gestures that you produce along with your speech. But at least from our studies it doesn't look like that's true. It looks like the gestures that you produce when you're told not to talk look the same across the globe."

RS: "What do you hope to do with this information and the findings from the study?"

SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW: "Well, I think the information that we find out about the deaf children that I study can be used to perhaps educate deaf children, both who are learning sign language and who are learning spoken language.

"It is also possible that this particular order we've discovered could be something that's quite easy to access. So, for example, if a child were having difficulty acquiring language, maybe if we put it in the form -- even if they're learning English, which has an S.V.O. order, maybe if we put their first sentences into an S.O.V. order, maybe it would be easier for them to grasp.

"So I think what we've found is that there's something here that's cognitively really basic, and that maybe you can make use of that in situations where communication is difficult. Either perhaps in a situation like what you're talking about at the Olympics, or in a situation where a child is having trouble learning how to speak."

AA: Susan Goldin-Meadow is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago who focuses on language development in children. Her new study is titled "The Natural Order of Events: How Speakers of Different Languages Represent Events Nonverbally." It was published in the July 1st Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. You can find the first part of our interview at And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.