Why do we gesture when we talk? Salford lecturer seeks answer in new research

Categories: Research, School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology

New research from a University of Salford lecturer has provided a new interpretation on why we gesture with our hands when we communicate.

Dr Jack Wilson, a researcher in linguistics and Programme Leader for BA English Language at the University of Salford, has published a new theory that seeks to dispel the common idea that gesturing is done at random and that it is something we should subsconsciously avoid when communicating. His theory has been published in his book Pragmatics, Utterance Meaning, and Representational Gesture (Cambridge University Press, February 2024).

The book, which has received significant international attention from other academics after years of research and study, seeks to answer the question; do gestures communicate and do people produce gestures with an intention to communicate?

His research determines the following;

  • Gesturing makes it easier for humans to speak and it is a helpful way for us to be able to communicate with one another as gesturing allows the respondent to predict how a conversation is likely to go.
  • Our gestures are intentional and have as much meaning as the words we choose to say.
  • Humans often overlook gesturing as a form of communication and whilst we are not always aware that we use gestures, it is fundamental to how we communicate. People often struggle to convey what they are trying to say when they are restrained from gesturing, often providing more filled pauses and research shows that if you tell someone who gestures to sit on their hands, evidence points to them then gesturing with their feet.
  • The fluency of our speech and our access to our internal vocabulary is improved when we are allowed to gesture.
  • The size and length of gesture we use depends on our comfortableness with a situation. If we are in a place that feels unfamiliar or uncomfortable, such as when giving a speech or presentation, we may use bigger, longer and more complex gestures, however, when we are more comfortable or speaking with people who we are familiar with, the gestures may be smaller and shorter.
  • People who have high visualisation skills (an ability to create mental images internally) and potentially low verbal skills, are likely to gesture more.
  • When you are trying to communicate with someone and they are struggling to understand what you mean, when you then provide more information, in many circumstances, you are likely to produce gestures.

On his research, Jack said: “For many years I’ve been seeking to answer the question of why we gesture when we talk and the simple answer is that it makes it easier for us to speak.

“We are our whole body, our minds extend to our fingertips and the tools we use around us. The gesture is an image that a person is externalising because they can see it in their mind, and they use their hand to create that image to others.

“What I’ve found is that human communication is very indirect, what we say isn’t the same as what we mean and the words we communicate are only tools that are being used to communicate our real intentions. Gesture is another form of communication that together with spoken language, reveals our real intentions.”

Jack has been researching the meaning behind human gestures since 2012 and this research continued at the University of Salford from 2016. His PhD, published an 2017, was an earlier exploration of the topic as he investigated the communicative role of visual behaviour accompanying language during interactions.

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