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Saying It With Gestures

Study examines how humans have innate ability to use gestures as language

MONDAY, Feb. 16, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Both adults and children have an innate ability to develop gestures they can use as language, says a University of Chicago study.

In previous research, psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow showed that deaf children of non-deaf parents develop a language-like system of gestures to communicate. To further investigate how gestures can be used to form language, Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues tested hearing adults.

In this study, the adults were told to use their hands rather than their mouths to describe certain things they were shown. The adults developed gestures and organized them into a structure similar to that used by deaf children.

The adults were shown a videotape of moving objects, for example, a donut-like object moving away from an ashtray. The adults were instructed to use gestures to describe the action they viewed on the videotape. They later described it in words.

When using gestures, the adults made gestures that represented the ashtray (stationary object), the donut (moving object), and action, in that order. The researchers note this order is different from the typical order of an English sentence.

The adults were then asked to arrange pictures of this sequence in two ways: once while working alone and once while talking to a researcher. People who talked about the movement of the donut-shaped object from the ashtray often put the pictures in an order that reflected the spoken English.

People who organized the pictures without talking to someone about what they were doing often put the pictures in the same order as when they used gestures: stationary object, moving object and movement.

"Finding the same non-English order in a non-communicative context suggests that the order is not driven solely by communication through gesture, but may be a more general property of human thought," Goldin-Meadow says in a prepared statement.

The study was presented Feb. 15 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Seattle.

More information

Here's where you can learn more about speech and language.

SOURCE: University of Chicago, news release, Feb. 15, 2004
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