Gestures, particularly those involving the arms and hands are used to convey a wide range of thoughts, images, feelings and ideas. Gestures that have a specific meaning are considered to be speech-independent. Examples of these gestures, sometimes referred to as emblems, are a wave to signify “hello” or “goodbye,” a crooked finger to beckon someone, or shrugged shoulders to indicate “I don’t know.” These can be used in conjunction with speech but can easily stand alone as well. Emblems can vary across cultures so it is wise to be cautious when using them in an unfamiliar context. The most common types of gestures are those called illustrators by social scientists. These gestures accompany speech but lack specific meaning on their own and include gestures such as pointing to give directions and motions intended to regulate the conversation. The meanings of these gestures become clear in the context of the dialogue. Hostetter (2011) calls these deictic gestures and refers to emblems as representative. She explains that these gestures pantomime an action, demonstrate spacial properties, or create a referent for an abstract idea.
Many researchers have studied gestures and the role they play in communication. Gestures that accompany speech are usually spontaneous and involuntary and accomplish both interpersonal and intrapersonal functions (Pine, Reeves, Howlett & Fletcher, 2013). Interpersonal gestures are those that help with communication, while intrapersonal gestures seem to help the speaker in cognitive processes (Pine, et al., 2013). Iverson and Goldin-Meadow (1998) assert that “the spontaneous hand movements that accompany speech are not random but convey to listeners information that can complement or even supplement the information relayed in speech.” Other researchers have concluded that conversational gestures carry meaningful information but they can be indistinct and unreliable (Krauss, Morrell-Samuels & Colasante, 1991). They disagreed with other theories as the extent that gestures play a role in communication.
Krauss, et al. seem to be a minority, however. Rim©, (as cited by Knapp, Hall & Horgan, 2014) found that fluency was negatively affected for speakers whose gestures were restricted. Graham and Heywood (1975) concluded that the elimination of gesture affected speech performance, noting that speakers spent more time pausing, used more words to describe spatial relations, and exhibited more hesitations when describing concepts which required more than a single word to express. Iverson and Goldin-Meadow (1998) suggested that speakers gesture because they understand that useful information is conveyed to listeners through their use. They further state that gesture is an integral part of the speaking process. Comprehension increases when gestures are combined with and support the verbal stream (Knapp, et al., 2014).
Gestures that aid listener comprehension have several functions. They can help the structure of a conversation, get attention, hold listener focus, enhance details, enliven ideas, and aid recall (Knapp, et al., 2014). Hostetter (2011) concluded that gestures related to spatial and motor topics significantly benefit communication, although those that occur with abstract topics do not. She additionally found that gestures help with comprehension of concepts, strengthen memory, and are helpful in getting attention. Listeners with lower verbal skills, such as children, nonnative speakers, and developmentally or neurologically impaired persons also benefit from the use of gestures. Kendon (1997) stated that speech and gesture are two aspects of a single process and therefore gestures provide a visual representation of objects or ideas that can be observed. He further said that gestures can also indicate the direction of communication.
While gestures play an important part in communication, they also have self-oriented or intrapersonal functions (Kita, Alibali, & Chu, 2017; Pine et al., 2013). The role that gestures play in cognition is significant, according to a number of researchers. The study by Pine, et al. (2013) looks at the way in which hand actions enhance perceptions, with the proposition that gestures can prime and aid perception, cognition, and speech. They further assert that gestures, as well as bodily actions and postures, can open access to memories, images, and language. Kita, et al. (2017) determined that” gesture activates, manipulates, packages, and explores spatio-motoric information for the purposes of speaking and thinking. It seems clear, then, that gestures benefit the speaker as well as the listener.
The cognitive aspect of gesture use has led researchers speculate on the way that gestures might impact learning. According to Pine, et al. (2013), “Cognitive processes are embedded in the interaction between the physical body and its external environment.” They reasoned that language and action use overlapping parts of the brain, which make object recognition easier. Goodrich and Kam (2009) concluded that gesture plays a role in language learning. In their study, learners were able to interpret unfamiliar parts of speech by paying attention to gestures. Goldin-Meadow (2004) also found an overlap in the processes of speech and gesture. She determined that gesture conveys meaning in a comprehensive manner, while speech depends on a more systematic process. This overlap can lead us to conclude that gesture combined with speech could be beneficial in learning environments. In fact, teachers often use gestures in the classroom to clarify and correct misconceptions (Goldin-Meadow, 2004). In order to be effective in learning, gestures should convey relevant information, although they do not need to be closely matched with targets (Pine, et al., 2013).
Although much research has been done in regard to gestures in communication, there is much more to discover. The communicative and cognitive aspects of gestures are intriguing. In the introduction of the Field Guide to Gestures, Armstrong and Wagner (2003) sum it up in this way, “Gestures are fascinating things, at once wholly expressive and curiously mysterious.”
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