Giving language a helping hand A simple gesture can be a powerful tool for thinking and speaking.

November 29, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The next time you find yourself in conversation, take a moment to observe yourself and your partner. Chances are, as you talk, both of you will be moving your arms, hands and fingers as much as your lips, tongues and gums.

The reason, a new study suggests, is that speech and gesturing go, well, hand-in-hand and may help us think and form words.

That, at least, is the conclusion of an experiment conducted by university psychologist Jana Iverson and published in the current edition of the scientific journal Nature.

For years, scientists have wondered why people gesture when they talk. Several theories have been put forward. Chief among them is one that says gesturing helps people lay out abstract thoughts in a concrete way.

Experiments have shown that people use their hands more when they're trying to explain concepts such as "love" or "evil," or feelings in general. The same is true with spatial or descriptive words, such as "near" or "under," "hard" or "tough."

Another leading theory says gesturing helps people retrieve words from memory. Chopping in the air, for example, triggers the memory to recall the word "ax." In a recent experiment published in the American Journal of Psychology, a researcher at North Carolina's

Appalachian State University found that volunteers, when asked to keep their hands still by holding onto a bar, had a more difficult time recalling words than those whose hands were free.

When volunteers, for example, were read this definition - "an ancient instrument used for calculations" - those who kept their hands still were significantly less likely to come up with the word "abacus" than those able to gesture.

For its part, the experiment published in Nature was aimed at answering the even more basic question of whether speaking and gesturing is a learned behavior - something acquired by watching others - or an instinctive part of speech and thought.

To answer the question, Iverson, a postdoctoral student at Indiana University in Bloomington who performed her work while at the University of Chicago, tested 24 children between ages 8 and 18. Half the children were sighted and half had been blind since birth, making it impossible for them to have actually seen anyone gesture while speaking.

In several tests, Iverson asked each child to explain certain concepts. In one, for example, she filled glasses with equal amounts of water and placed them on a table. After each child explored the glasses to establish how much water they contained, the water from one glass was poured into a bowl.

The children were then asked to explain whether one container held more water than the other.

"Our major finding," Iverson said, "is that the blind children gestured just as much as the sighted children."

Moreover, Iverson said, further tests showed that the blind children spoke and used hand gestures when the people they were talking to were also blind.

"The basic idea has always been that gesturing and thinking are highly connected," she said "But until now it had never been tested experimentally."

This said, Iverson in no way is suggesting that a person needs to gesture to communicate well. Many people still communicate well, for instance, despite having paralysis. Moreover, there is no scientific research as yet to explain why certain ethnic groups seem to use more hand gestures when speaking than others.

What is clear, however, is that the behavior is innate.

"What we all have in common, call it universal, is this tight relationship between gesturing and speaking and thinking," Iverson says "The extent to which we use gestures is probably shaped by the cultures we live in. If you're an Italian speaker, you may use more. If your're a Chinese or Japanese speaker, it's possible that gesturing is something you will do not much of. But the basic tendency is to gesture when we talk.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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