Handling more than one language: the relevance of gestures in second language acquisition


Marianne Gullberg dispels some of the myths about second language acquisition hand gestures, and questions why we think of bilingualism and second language acquisition as separate?

There is a great preconception that we use gestures, not when we are speaking, but to replace speech when we are learning a second language. However, as many of us who either learn or teach second languages will know, this is not the case. Students tend to use hand gestures to try to depict what they are saying, or to help “tease” the word out of them.

However, gestures and use of gestures vary from country to country, from culture to culture. Yet they can be used as tools for language learning. How?

First it is important to define a gesture. Within gesture studies, the definition used is “a movement related to what you are trying to express”. Gestures range from “conventional gestures”, or “emblems”, which have to be learned and relate to a specific word (think of scuba-diving gestures, or even the particular “ok” that has many culturally specific but emblematic meanings), to less or non-conventional “spontaneous” gestures, that are related to speech. People usually are less aware of the practice of spontaneous gestures.

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As regards tools for second language acquisition, different solutions can be found for issues with vocabulary, grammar and non-fluency. Vocabulary can be teased out by the use of gestures, whilst using words and explanations to accompany such gestures. Grammar and tense in particular can be aided by making spacial gesture that indicate concepts such as present, past or future.

There is also a gesture that appears cross-culturally in second language learners which is described as “whisking”, a swirl of the hand which is common when language learners are thinking.

It has been found that vocabulary learning can be aided by the use of accompanying gestures at the time of teaching the vocabulary. It is also true that a negative effect is found if the gesture has nothing to do with the word in question. Therefore using relevant gestures to aid the retention of new vocabulary in language learning is one way of using gestures as a tool.

There are many other things that can be said about gestures – their use in interpreting, the gesture “accent” that you may have, how to assimilate gestures in your target culture. Also, hearing children to deaf parents and their use of gestures. These all are things that I will look at in future blog posts. In the meantime, get in touch – What are your thoughts on gestures?Do you use gestures in language acquisition or teaching?

Intercultural Communication and the Olympics


A cold and snowy Soria welcomed me last Monday to give a talk on intercultural communication. In the Sala Roja of el Instituto Antonio Machado, so named in honour of the poet who taught there, intermediate and advanced level English students of the Escuela de Idiomas de Soria braved the weather to attend my talk about intercultural communication.

The theme I chose for my talk was the Olympic Games. Through the use of sport I could explain some underlying themes of intercultural communication using concrete examples, and allow the talk to be understood by a wide range of English proficiencies. The talk was given to groups ranging from B1 (intermediate) to C1 (advanced).

I wanted to use the theme of sport to express some ideas to the students in order to explain to them that subject specific  language can be exclusive, and therefore exclude those with no previous experience of the subject, and inclusive to those who do – and in this case can transcend linguistic boundaries.

To follow from this I wanted to stress that intercultural communication can therefore be both inter- and intralingual. Given my experience as a volunteer interpreter at the Olympic Games, I drew on the nature of preparation for interpreting to explain my ideas. I wanted to stress to these English learners the different knowledge pockets that we all have – and that our linguistic knowledge is not as complete in our own language as we may think. We are simply better equipped to deal with the gaps in our knowledge.

I wanted to use many activities to demonstrate the different levels of linguistic competence we have regarding different sports, not only in English, but also in their native tongue, Spanish. I felt that this was important as sometimes it can seem very daunting learning a new language, having so many gaps in our knowledge. Sometimes it helps to realise that in our own language there are so many things that we don’t know either.

I kicked off with the example of football, as one of the most widely played sports across the world, and certainly a very important sport both in the UK and Spain. I asked them to connect the Spanish terms for common football terms such as “goal”, “throw in” and “free kick” to the English terms. As expected, most dealt with this without much difficulty.

I was using this to explain the inclusive nature of sports language. When you understand the terms being used it brings people who understand both the language and the actions of such a sport together. However, I wanted to explain that football can also be exclusive to those who are not very interested in football, by giving examples of nicknames that football teams have. For people who follow football, this would still constitute an “inclusive” element, but for those for whom football just happens to be a popular sport in their country, this now moves into the “exclusive” realm of the culture.

To switch from common, popular sports, I then moved to the sports I actually interpreted for at the Olympics. I was based in the Excel Exhibition Centre, so I was interpreting for boxing, wrestling, weightlifting, fencing and taekwondo. These are minority sports and so the language used to describe the techniques, the kit and the format of the games are familiar to a smaller audience.

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I chose to use fencing and boxing to demonstrate my point. As regards fencing, I used an image showing various items of fencing kit. I first asked the students to try to name the kit in Spanish, and then in English. I stressed the point that whilst some of the kit items are named using normal, everyday words in both Spanish and English (e.g. chaqueta, jacket), others are not (plastrón, plastron). I used this to emphasise that sometimes it is not being a native speaker of a language that matters, but an interest or knowledge of a subject area.

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Mexican Boxer Oscar Valdez being interviewed after a fight

Mexican Boxer Oscar Valdez being interviewed after a fight

Finally I moved to boxing, to look at stances, punches and defence. This was the most complicated exercise, but the students maintained interest and kept going for the final round. They found that as a group they could name most of the punches in Spanish, and therefore some in English, but the stances and defence was more difficult. Once again, often the names in Spanish of the moves were very similar if not borrowed from the English. This had not been my original intention of demonstrating that sport transcends language barriers, but it did have the added bonus of showing the importance of subject knowledge contrasted against language knowledge, which I think can be a useful tool in language learning.

This brought me to my final point, in that intercultural communication can be extrapolated out to many different cultures – it depends on how you define culture. You can define culture as a language group, you can define it as a country group, a regional group and so on. But, you can also define it by different subject “cultures”. Different sports have their own culture, just as companies do, as well as different professions, and any other group that share a common interest or need. And with this comes different terminology and linguistic expression. Whether you are talking about a Geordie from Newcastle, a social worker (think of all those acronyms), an activist, or a scientist, each of these represents a specific culture, which is one of the many cultures that each person belongs to.

In the end I wanted to express to these students that language is complex and diverse. It is fluid and not static, and that in our own native language there are many gaps in our knowledge, just as there are in any second or third languages that we might learn. However, with our native language these gaps seem small and insignificant most of the time. If we can apply some of the coping mechanisms we apply in our native language to our learning of new languages, then the interlingual gap will become smaller.


Canning House – A cooperação educativa e científica entre América Latina e Reino Unido

Na quarta-feira da semana passada, estive pela primeira vez em Canning House, lar do Conselho hispânico e luso-brasileiro em Londres. O tema do dia foi a cooperação educativa e científica entre Reino Unido e América Latina. Os dois oradores eram David Willetts MP, Ministro das Universidades e da Ciência, e a Dra. Joanna Newman, da Universities UK International Unit. Foi uma manhã muito interessante. Não obstante, decepcionou-me bastante reparar que a visão anglocêntrica de “todo o mundo tem que aprender o inglês”, sem a mínima intenção recíproca de aprender outras línguas, continue sendo tão forte no mundo da educação universitária. Talvez tenha sido algo ingénua, mas fiquei indignada ao descobrir que as pessoas que estão intimamente ligadas ao fomento da educação universitaria británica no estrangeiro continuam a expressar esta opinião.

Parece que existem alguns programas de cooperação interessantes entre Reino Unido e varios países latinoamericanos. A Joanna e o David descreveram de modo detalhado a iniciativa Ciência sem fronteiras promovida por Dilma Rousseff, a presidente atual do Brasil, que vai financiar a saída de 120.000 estudantes brasileiros, que trabalham na ciência, para estudar um tempo, seja apenas uns meses ou inclusive anos, no estrangeiro. Alguns dos quais têm o Reino Unido como o seu destino.

Falaram também do trabalho contínuo entre Reino Unido, Chile, México e Colombia, recaindo o enfoque no que concerne à criação e ao fortalecimento das redes universitárias nestes países com a rede universitária do Reino Unido. O desenvolvimento de estratégias sistema a sistema, em que os especialistas em aspectos logísticos do sistema universitário de cada país compartilham os seus conhecimentos, parece ser uma área de interesse em particular.

Contudo, apesar de falar tanto sobre a necessidade de “trabalhar juntos” e de que essas parcerias devem ser uma colaboração verdadeira entre as duas partes, o que mais ressaltou durante os discursos foi a repetição da preocupação de os estudantes estrangeiros não terem um nivel adequado de inglês para participar plenamente nos cursos em Inglaterra. Foi mencionada também a falta de professores de inglês suficientemente qualificados na Colômbia, e foi destacado o nosso dever de assegurar que os estudantes destes países alcancem um nível adequado de inglês.

Não mencionaram nenhuma vez a capacidade linguística dos estudantes britânicos ao irem para o estrangeiro. A Joanna e o David reconheceram a reticência dos estudantes britânicos irem para o estrangeiro, mas nenhum dos dois sugeriu que isto tinha algo a ver com a sociedade de Reino Unido em geral, ou o fracasso por parte do sistema educativo em fomentar a aprendizagem de línguas e fazer com que as línguas apareçam nas agendas dos estudantes.
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Quando Tim Connell, do Chartered Institute of Linguists, salientou a evidente importância de também os estudantes britânicos aprenderem espanhol e português, a resposta de David Willetts foi simplesmente descrever a situação como “frustrante”. Destacou que as línguas no Reino Unido continuam a receber o financiamento dada a sua classificação como cadeiras estratégicamente importantes e vulneráveis (SIVs pela sigla inglesa). Não obstante, não realçou nem mostrou interesse em considerar as razões mais profundas que estão na origem de uma atitude tão negativa da parte dos estudantes britânicos relativamente à aprendizagem de línguas estrangeiras, e não comentou mais nada.

A Joanna só conseguiu reforçar este sentimento de ambivalência quando destacou que as universidades de América Latina usam o inglês cada vez mais como língua veicular, algo que, ainda que verdadeiro, não acho que seja uma justificação válida do “porquê” de seguirmos com este enfoque anglocêntrico em tudo o que fazemos. Também compreendo que estamos a falar de parcerias de pesquisas científicas, e que uma grande parte das pesquisas científicas se produz em inglês, mas isso tem muito pouco a ver com a ideia de estudantes britânicos irem a outros países, ficarem meses ou inclusivamente anos numa cultura distinta da sua e poderem integrar-se nas respetivas sociedades.

Para concluir, embora o discurso tenha sido muito interessante e tenha aprendido bastante sobre as parcerias que estão a construir entre o nosso sistema universitário e os dos países latinoamericanos, indignou-me e entristeceu-me perceber que as nossas prioridades continuam a ser as de impor e reforçar o inglês como língua franca sem a mínima auto-reflexão ou consideração pela imagem que esta atitude de mente fechada transmite a outros países. Enfim, isto só servirá para prejudicar o Reino Unido e os seus cidadãos.

 Obrigada ao Igor por revisar o artigo antes de publicar

Charla sobre la cooperación científica y educativa entre Reino Unido y América Latina

El miércoles pasado estuve por la primera vez en Canning House, hogar del Consejo hispánico y luso-brasileño en Londres. El tema del día era la cooperación educativa y científica entre Reino Unido y América Latina. Los dos oradores eran David Willetts MP, Ministro de Universidades y la Ciencia, y Dra. Joanna Newman, de la Universities UK International Unit. Resultó ser una mañana muy interesante. Sin embargo, me decepcionó bastante enterarme de que la visión anglocéntrica de “todo el mundo tiene que aprender el inglés”, sin el mínimo propósito recíproco  de aprender otros idiomas, siga con tanta fuerza en el mundo de la educación universitaria. Quizás fui algo ingenua, pero me quedé indignada al descubrir que las personas que están estrechamente involucradas en el fomento de la educación universitaria británica en el extranjero siguen expresando tal opinión.

Parece que existen algunos programas de cooperación interesantes entre Reino Unido y varios países latinoamericanos. Joanna y David mencionaron con detalle la iniciativa Ciencia sin fronteras promovida por Dilma Rousseff, la presidenta actual de Brasil, que lleva a que unos 120.000 estudiantes brasileños, que trabajan en la ciencia, salgan del país para estudiar un tiempo en el extranjero, algunos de los cuales tienen Reino Unido como su destino.

Hablaron también del trabajo continuo entre Reino Unido y Chile, México y Colombia, el enfoque del que trata la creación y fortalecimiento de las redes universitarias en estos países con la red universitaria de Reino Unido. El desarrollo de estrategias sistema a sistema, que involucra la colaboración entre los peritos en aspectos logísticos dentro del sistema universitario de cada país, parece ser un área específica de interés.

No obstante, a pesar de hablar tanto de la necesidad de “trabajar juntos” y de que esas colaboraciones deban ser exactamente eso, una colaboración entre las dos partes, lo que resaltó más que nada en las charlas, era la repetición de la preocupación de que los estudiantes extranjeros no tienen un nivel adecuado de inglés para participar plenamente en los cursos aquí. Se mencionó también la falta de profesores de inglés suficientemente cualificados en Colombia, y se destacó nuestro deber de asegurar que los estudiantes de estos países alcancen un nivel adecuado de inglés.

Ni una vez se mencionó la capacidad lingüística de los estudiantes británicos al ir al extranjero. Joanna y David reconocieron la reticencia de los estudiantes británicos a irse al extranjero, pero ninguno de los dos sugirió que esto tenía algo que ver con la sociedad de Reino Unido en general, o el fracaso por parte del sistema educativo en fomentar el aprendizaje de idiomas y hacer que las lenguas aparezcan en los órdenes del día de los estudiantes.

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Joanna sólo consiguió reforzar este sentimiento de ambivalencia, cuando destacó que cada vez más las universidades de América Latina utilizan el inglés como idioma de enseñanza, que puede que sea la verdad, pero no creo que sea una excusa válida de porqué seguimos con este enfoque anglocéntrico en todo lo que hacemos.   También entiendo que estamos hablando de colaboraciones de investigación científica, y que mucha investigación científica se produce en inglés, sin embargo eso tiene muy poco que ver con la idea de estudiantes británicos que se van a otros países para pasar meses o incluso años en una cultura distinta a la suya y poder integrarse en la sociedad allí.

Para concluir, además de que el discurso fue muy interesante, aprendí bastante sobre las colaboraciones que se construyen entre nuestro sistema universitario y los de los países latinoamericanos, me indignó y me entristeció darme cuenta de que nuestras prioridades siguen siendo las de imponer y reforzar el inglés como lengua franca sin la mínima auto-reflexión o consideración por la imagen que esta actitud de mente cerrada comunica a otros países. Al fin y al cabo, esto solo servirá para dañar al Reino Unido y a sus ciudadanos.

Muchas gracias a Álvaro Nuevo por revisar el artículo.  


UK-Latin America Educational and Scientific Co-operation Talk 28/11/2012

Last Wednesday I went on my first visit to Canning House, home of the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Council in London. The subject of the morning was educational and scientific co-operation between the UK and Latin America, the two speakers being David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science, and Dr. Joanna Newman, from the Universities UK International Unit. It proved to be an interesting morning. However, I was disappointed to find that the anglocentric view of “everyone must learn English”, with no reciprocal intent to learn other languages, to be running strong in this circle. Maybe it was naive of me, but I can only say that I was shocked to find that the people who are so deeply involved in promoting this country’s higher education abroad still express such an opinion.

There seem to be some interesting cooperation programmes being set up between the UK and various Latin American countries. Both Joanna and David mentioned in some detail the Science without Borders initiative that Dilma Rousseff, current president of Brazil, has pioneered, which is resulting in some 120,000 Brazilian science students taking their studies abroad for various periods on the programme, some of whom have the UK as their destination.

Mention was made of continuing work with Chile, Colombia and Mexico, the focus of which is on the forging and strengthening of partnerships between the University networks in these countries with the UK University network. The development of system to system strategies, in which experts in the logistical aspects of running universities can share their expertise and work together, seems to be an area of particular interest.

However, despite all this talk about needing to “work together” and that these partnerships should be a “collaborative effort”, what most stood out to me was the repetition of this preoccupation that foreign students do not have a sufficient level of English to fully participate in courses here. The lack of sufficiently qualified English teachers in Colombia was also mentioned, as was our duty to ensure that the students of these countries attain a suitable level of English.

Not once in these speeches was the linguistic capability of British students abroad mentioned. The reluctance of UK students to go abroad was mentioned both by Joanna and by David, but neither suggested that this had anything to do with UK society in general, or the education system’s failure to encourage language learning and to put it on students’ agendas.
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When the obvious reciprocal importance of British students learning Spanish and Portuguese was raised by Tim Connell, from the Chartered Institute of Linguists, David Willits’s response was to call the situation “frustrating”, stressing that languages still received funding as strategically important and vulnerable subjects. However, he did not seem to place great emphasis or interest in looking at the deeper reasons why we have such as laissez-faire attitude towards the learning of foreign languages, and commented no further.

Joanna only compounded this sense of ambivalence, stressing that more and more universities in Latin America are actually teaching their courses in English, which may be the case, but I did not feel that it was a suitable excuse as to why we continue to have this anglocentric focus to everything we do. I also understand that we are talking about scientific research partnerships, and that much scientific research is conducted in English, but this has very little to do with British students moving to other countries to spend months or years living in a different culture and being able to integrate with the people there.

To conclude, whilst I found the talk very interesting, finding out a bit more about the partnerships that are being forged between our university system and those of the Latin American countries, I felt shocked and saddened to realise that our priorities continue to be to impose and enforce English as the lingua franca without any sort of self-reflection or consideration of the closed-mindedness that this puts across to other countries. In the end this will only serve to damage the UK and its citizens.