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

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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?

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