December 10, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 6

current issue
archive / search

    Psychology professor discovers gesturing is integral to speaking

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Blind children use gestures as part of speech much the same way sighted children do, according to a paper by University scholars published in the Nov. 19 issue of the journal Nature.

    “Gesture depends on neither a model nor an observer and thus appears integral to the speaking process itself,” said Susan Goldin-Meadow, Professor in Psychology, who with her former student Jana Iverson, now a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University, co-wrote the article “Why do People Gesture?”

    “These findings suggest that the gestures which co-occur with speech may themselves reflect, or even facilitate, the thinking that underlies speaking,” Goldin-Meadow said. “Our findings underscore the vital importance of gesture in speaking. Gesture is not just a flourish people use while they talk.”

    Goldin-Meadow is a specialist on gesture in many of its guises––in deaf children, who create gestures on their own that resemble the gestures of signed and spoken languages, and in hearing children, who use gesture as a natural accompaniment to speech. In her studies of the gestures that co-occur with speech, she has found that gesture provides insight into the thoughts children do not yet express in words.

    For their recent study, Iverson and Goldin-Meadow selected children and adolescents who ranged in age from 9 to 18 and were blind since birth. They observed the children’s and adolescents’ use of gestures and whether or not the gestures resembled those used by sighted children. Iverson and Goldin-Meadow also selected 12 sighted children and adolescents of similar age, gender and ethnicity to serve as a control group.

    The researchers videotaped study participants in conversations with a sighted experimenter to see how the blind children responded to a series of tasks that normally prompts gesturing in sighted children.

    “We found that all 12 blind speakers gestured as they spoke, despite the fact that they had never seen a gesture,” Goldin-Meadow said. “The blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group and conveyed the same ideas using the same range of gesture forms as the sighted group.”

    The blind speakers indicated objects in the same way sighted participants did, and both groups used more elaborate gestures to communicate concepts or actions. For example, the blind children used a “C” hand shape arched in the air to indicate the idea of pouring a liquid from one container to another.

    The researchers then tested the possibility that the blind speakers were gesturing only to convey useful information to their listener. They asked four additional children, each blind since birth, to participate in the same reasoning tasks, but this time, the tasks were administered by a blind experimenter.

    The children were told they were talking with a blind adult; “nevertheless, we found that all the blind speakers gestured when addressing the blind experimenter,” Goldin-Meadow said. “Moreover, they gestured using the same forms and at the same rate as that observed in other encounters.”

    Goldin-Meadow works with other faculty members as part of the Early Childhood Initiative at the University, which is supported by a two-year grant from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation. The studies of gesturing in blind speakers are funded by the March of Dimes.