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We study sooner after we speak with our fingers

May 23, 2023
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Do you motion with your hands when you talk? Most people do. The movements come naturally to us, and often happen without any conscious planning. We speak, and our hands get into the act.

Undoubtedly, a lot of this behavior is learned. If you raise a child in Italy, she’ll grow up learning different gestures than if you raise her in Japan, Nigeria, or Canada. She’ll also learn different social norms about the desirability of gesturing. By the age of two years, Italian children produce about twice as many communicative gestures as do English-speaking Canadian kids (Marentette et al 2016).

But cultural variation doesn’t change the fact that gesturing is a species-typical behavior. Like speech, music, or dance, gesture is part of our biological heritage. Children who are blind from birth use gestures when they talk, even when speaking to other sightless people (Iverson and Goldin-Meadow 1998). And fieldwork on the great apes suggests that our ancestors used their hands to communicate long before the evolution of speech (deWaal and Pollick 2006; Byrne et al 2017).

Why do we do it nowadays? Is it mere hand-waving? Is it a useless atavism, an evolutionary leftover that serves no modern purpose? Research suggest otherwise.

As it turns out, our hand movements have a substantial impact on the way we learn, reason, and solve problems.

  • Babies exposed to lots of communicative gestures appear to learn language more quickly, and acquire bigger vocabularies. It’s helpful to have a parent who is a good gesturer.
  • Young children also seem to benefit from making gestures. For instance, toddlers who point are more likely to elicit helpful information from adults (“Oh! That’s a dog!”), which may explain why these children develop larger vocabularies over time.
  • Experiments indicate that gesturing helps students master new mathematical concepts, reason about spatial relationships, and solve logical puzzles.

With all this evidence, we really should be in the business of encouraging gesture, at least the kind that boosts communication and intellectual performance. Far from being outmoded or redundant, gesture plays an important role in cognitive development and problem-solving. Here are the details.

Language development: Evidence that gestures can help children learn new words

Psycholinguist David McNeil (1992) has identified four basic types of gesture:

  • Deictic gestures, or pointing movements (e.g., you point at a butterfly while you are talking about it)
  • Iconic gestures (movements that act out the physical characteristics or movements of an object, as when you wave your hands to represent the flapping of a butterfly’s wings)
  • Metaphoric gestures (movements that depict an abstract concept, like lifting your hands up high to describe a “big problem”)
  • Beats (small, quick movements that don’t have any perceptible meaning; they just punctuate what we’re saying)

All of these gesture-types can play an important role in communication. For example, beat gestures help focus our attention on key words (Rohrer et al 2020), and metaphoric gestures may help make abstract ideas more concrete. But when it comes to babies and young children, the first two gesture types — deictic and iconic gestures – may be especially helpful for learning the meaning of new words. Does this mean that gestures can enhance language development? Several discoveries lend support to the idea.

Young children notice our gestures

Experiments demonstrate that 2-year-olds pay attention to adult gestures, and use them to figure out what actions adults are asking them to perform (Novack et al 2015). Moreover, deaf infants immersed in a sign language environment develop language skills at rates similar to hearing infants exposed to speech (Lillo-Martin and Henner 2021). So from an early age, children study our gestures, and they realize that these getures are communicative.

Deictic gestures can help toddlers learn spatial vocabulary

In an experiment on 18- to 24-month-olds, researchers trained babies to understanding the meaning of the word “under” by asking them to place one item “under” another. Could you put the toy bear under the table?

Some babies got the added help of an explanatory gesture. The adult conspicuously placed one of her hands beneath the other as she spoke.

Other babies weren’t exposed to a gesture, but instead were shown a photograph depicting the desired outcome (e.g., the bear sitting under the table).

In tests that immediately followed training, researchers observed no differences between groups. But when researchers tested the babies again, 2-3 days later, the children exposed to gestures outpaced those in the photo group. They showed a stronger, more flexible understanding of the word “under” (McGregor et al 2009).

Preschoolers (2.5 – 4.5 years of age) can use iconic gestures to rapidly work the meaning of a new word

Whitney Goodrich and Carla Kam demonstrated this in an experiment that exposed children to totally new vocabulary. The researchers invented four verbs (“sib”, “blip”, “gern” and “flim”), and then presented kids with puppet shows that demonstrated the meaning of these words.

For example, one show featured a stick toy pulling a puppet along a winding path. Another featured the puppet getting spun around on a turntable.

Along with each puppet show, an adult experimenter introduced the word being depicted by slipping it into her conversation, e.g., “Sam (the puppet) really likes to blip. Can you tell me which toy lets Sam go blipping?”

Of course, the kids had never heard of “blipping” before, but they could guess. And their guesses depended on what types of gesture the experimenter used while she was talking. For instance, if she traced her finger along an imaginary, winding path, kids were more likely to choose the stick toy (Goodrich and Kam 2008).

Children who communicate with effective gesturers tend to develop larger vocabularies

As I note in this article, kids appear to learn language faster when they have parents who score higher on objective measures of “referential transparency,” the ability to convey the meaning of a word through nonverbal cues. In a study tracking 50 toddlers, researchers found this to be the case even after controlling for a child’s initial vocabulary size (Cartmill et al 2012).

Young children who use lots of gestures themselves tend to develop more advanced language skills over time

When researchers monitor development over time, they find that early gesturing (especially deictic gesturing) tends to predict faster language development (Colonnesi et al 2010). For example, in a study of 47 infants, babies who used more pointing gestures at the age of 14 months tended to develop larger spoken vocabularies by the age of 18 months (Choi and Rowe 2021).

Why might this be the case? As noted above, babies who make frequent use of pointing tend to get more timely linguistic feedback. They see something that interests them — point at it– and their caregivers respond by providing the appropriate verbal label (Kovács et al ; Wu and Gros-Louis 2013). And experiments confirm that babies learn more quickly when we respond to their pointing in this way (Begus et al 2014; Lucca and Wilbourne 2016).

Spatial skills: Evidence that gesture helps us perform spatial reasoning tasks

We’ve already seen that certain types of gesture — deictic gestures indicating movement and location — can help young children learn new, spatial words. Can it also help us with spatial reasoning?

As you might guess, gestures can be very useful when we’re trying to understand — and commit to memory — someone else’s verbal directions about where to go

In experiments on adults and preschoolers alike, adding gestures (deictic and iconic) to verbal directions (about what route to take) was linked with improve recall. Folks tended to remember directions more accurately when those directions had included informative gestures (Austin and Sweller 2017; Austin et al 2018). In addition, an experiment on adults suggests that we can enhance recall by rehearsing spatial directions through a combination of visualization and hand gestures (So et al 2014).

There’s also evidence that gestures can improve mental rotation performance

Mental rotation is the ability to visualize what an object would look like from another angle or orientation. We use it to solve spatial problems in everyday life (“Will this couch fit through the doorway if we flip it 90 degrees?”), but it’s also important for success in many STEM fields. And studies indicate that the simple act of gesturing can help us get the job done.

For instance, experiments on adults suggest that gesturing can improve performance on mental rotation tasks — at least when it comes to problems that are especially difficult or challenging (Chut and Kita 2011; Çapan et al 2023). In addition, a study of 5-year-olds reports that the kids with the best mental rotation skills were the ones who gestured with their hands (Ehrlich et al 2006)

Math skills: Evidence that gestures help kids grasp and retain new lessons about mathematics

Imagine you’re 8 or 9 years old, and you’re trying to learn how to solve a simple algebraic problem like this one:

4 + 3 = ___ + 6

Would it help if your teacher encouraged you to gesture? Susan Cook and her colleagues tested this idea, randomly-assigning third and fourth graders to receive one of three types of instruction:

  • In the SPEECH condition, a teacher explained to the child, “I want to make one side equal the other side,” and she asked the child to repeat the phrase.
  • In the GESTURE condition, a teacher moved her left hand under the left side of the equation, then moved her right hand under the right side of the equation. Then the teacher asked the child to repeat these hand movements.
  • In the GESTURE + SPEECH condition, the teacher combined both elements. The child was asked to repeat the instructor’s words and actions.

After training, kids were given a new algebra problem to solve, and they were told to solve it using whatever method their teacher had demonstrated.

Children in all three groups — SPEECH, GESTURE, and GESTURE + SPEECH — showed improvements. They were more likely to arrive at a correct solution immediately after instruction. But something interesting emerged when the kids were re-tested four weeks later:

The children who had shown immediate improvements after gesturing — either alone, or in combination with speech — were more likely to maintain their improvement four weeks later (Cook et al 2006).

In other words, kids who gestured did a better job remembering the correct strategy.

Moreover, these kids also showed evidence of transfer — of being able to apply their emerging knowledge to new contexts (Cook et al 2006). And subsequent research — using fMRI brain scan technology — suggests that kids who have learned in this way are more likely activate motor regions of the brain when solving math problems (Wakefield et al 2019).

So perhaps there is something intrinsically helpful about combining mental content with physical actions. But as it turns out, you don’t have to generate gestures yourself to benefit.

Merely watching gestures can also help kids learn math

Susan Cook and her colleagues were curious to find out if a teacher’s gesturing alone could make a difference. So they performed a variant of the mathematics experiment above, this time asking kids to merely watch the adult instructor (Cook et al 2013).

In immediate post-testing, kids who received instruction with gesture and speech outperformed kids who received only verbal instruction. And the achievement gap widened when kids were tested 24 hours later, suggesting that watching gestures helped kids encode the lesson in long-term memory.

Cook has also replicated these effects with a mathematics lesson delivered by a computer-generated, anthropomorphic, teaching avatar. Some children in the experiment were randomly assigned to a teaching avatar that incorporated meaningful gestures into it’s speech. Other kids received exactly the same lesson, except that the avatar didn’t gesture.   

The students instructed by gesturing avatars went on to learn and solve problems more quickly. As in the previous study, they were also more likely to transfer their new knowledge to other contexts  (Cook et al 2017).

Why would gesturing be helpful for learning math?

Experiments led by Elizabeth Wakefield suggests it’s about attention, both visual and auditory. Kids paid more attention to a mathematics equation — and listened more closely to the teacher’s speech — when the teacher used gestures to point out key parts of the quation (Wakefield et al 2018).

But gestures may also help by bringing additional cognitive resources to the learning task. For instance, in a study of undergraduates, Mary Aldugom and her colleagues found that that the effects of a teacher’s gestures depended on the visual-spatial abilities of students. Individuals who could juggle lots of visual-spatial information in their “mind’s eye” (i.e., those who had high visual-spatial working memory capacity) learned more from mathematics lessons that include gesture (Aldugom et al 2020).

What else can gesturing do for us?

Experiments suggest that gestures enhance memories for events and stories.

For example, children and adults alike have show better recall for the details of a story when the narrator accompanies his or her speech with iconic gestures (Kartalkanat and Göksun 2020). In addition, children may recall more information about interesting, autobiographical events if we ask them to use their hands while they tell us what happened (Stevanoni and Salmon 2005).

It also appears that gesturing can also help us think through logical procedures

People have shown superior performance on a task that requires logic and sequential reasoning (the Tower of Hanoi puzzle) when they were encouraged to “think” with their hands (Trofatter et al 2015; Eielts et al 2020).

Will future research uncover other benefits?

That seems very likely. For example, it’s easy to imagine how gesturing might help students grasp certain physical concepts. I expect we’ll see studies investigating the use of meaningful gesture in science education. But we may also discover some surprises.

Recent research has revealed some interesting correlations in a child’s developing ability to tell coherent stories. Five-year-olds who use gesture to portray a character’s perspective (like motioning downward with the hands to show that a character falls down) tend to develop more complex narrative skills later on.

Compared to other children, they are more likely in subsequent years to construct narratives that recount events in chronological order, and to explain a character’s actions in terms of his or her goals (Demir et al 2015).

The same correlation was not found for speech. Merely talking about actions from the character’s viewpoint didn’t predict later improvements in narrative structure.

Is it possible that the act of physically enacting another character’s experiences — “showing” as well as “telling” — helps kids better understand that character? Is it possible that it helps kids think more clearly about cause and effect, and develop better narrative skills? It’s an intriguing idea that future studies may unravel.

More information

What happens when we explicitly teach babies to talk with their hands? Learn more in this article about the possible benefits of teaching babies gestures.

In addition, you can find more evidence-based information about learning in these Parenting Science pages.


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Content last modified 5/2023

Portions of the text appeared in previous versions of this article for Parenting Science, written by the same author.

image of baby gesturing over shoulder by istock / Joaquin Corbalan P

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