Gestures and Signs in Communication

Table of Contents


The development of spoken language is arguably one of the greatest achievements of mankind and it has enabled people to communicate effectively and therefore develop great civilizations. Owing to the importance with which spoken language is regarded, psychologists and linguists have extensively studied spoken language and aided in its further advancement. However, spoken language is not the only means through which human being communicate with one another.

Namy and Newcombe (2008) note that gestures are a clearly prevalent extra-linguistic form of communication and people from all over the world regularly make use of their hands as they communicate (p.248). Questions have been raised concerning the ability of gestures to be used as stand alone communicational tools in place of speech. This paper will set out to argue that while gestures can be developed and studied so as to advance their usage, they can not serve as an adequate replacement for speech in our current fast paced life.

The paper will begin by offering evidence of how gestures can be used not only in conjunction with but also as stand alone means of communication. The setbacks that are inherent in the use of gestures will then be discussed to as to reinforce the assertion that gestures cannot be used exclusively in place of spoken language.

Gestures: An Overview

By definition, a gesture is “a body movement fulfilling communicational function” (Sfard, 2009, p.194). Gestures are the first form of communication that human beings adopt. An average 10month old baby is unable to produce any intelligible speech but it can communicate through gestures. Just like verbal communication, research indicates that each body expression conveys a meaningful message, which can be received and processed by other people (Tenjes, 2001, p.302).

While human language has evolved more significantly than gestures, they both have a common base. This suggests that if more resources were dedicated to the study of gesture, they could advance to the level that language has and therefore be used instead of language for communication purposes.

Some researchers suggest that gestures are an intricate part of human communication and without a deeper understanding of gesturing; we will not be able to fully understand human thinking. Holle and Thomas (2007) state that gestures are “the very texture of thinking” and are very important sources of abstract thinking (p.192).

Contrary to popular belief, gestures do not owe their communicational effectiveness to their being used in conjunction with words but rather to the ability of the communicating parties to relate the body movements to certain familiar things due to their cultural experience (Sfard, 2009, p.194). It is therefore possible to study and develop gestures such that they can be used for communication purposes instead of spoken languages.

Tenjes (2001) notes that it is the result of socialization that all human beings acknowledge that speech is an intentional communicative means (p.303). This is held to be true even when a person does not comprehend what the speaker is saying. Gestures and body language can also be developed to enable a person to use them to communicate complex ideas.

This would require that movements be made such that they have certain dynamic characteristics and are always regarded as fully intentional and intentionally communicative just as speech is regarded. If gestures were to be studied in more detail, people would learn to recognize a number of features that a movement may have and movements would therefore be able to convey myriads of meanings.

Without a doubt, spoken language has been given the most focus by psychologists and linguists as the primary means through which symbolic communication takes place among humans. As a result of the lack of study and development of gestures, many gestures lack syntactic rules that govern their use. Empirical investigations of gestural languages as used within deaf communities have demonstrated that gestures are in fact linguistics which can be developed to communicate in a manner similar to speech (Namy & Newcombe, 2008, p.243).

Research conclusively demonstrates that gesture is critical for cognitive processing by both the communicating party and the recipient. Goldin-Meadow (2006) states that the setback experienced when using gestures is because they are used to accompany speech and hence do not assume a language-like form (p.34).

She goes on to suggest that these gestures rarely combine with one another to create sentence-like gesture strings as would be the case if gestures were to be used on their own. When using gestures and signs on their own, these two can be combined into string characterized by order that does not necessarily follow the speech pattern of the spoken language.

Merits of Using Gestures for Communication

Nonverbal communications can be used to transmit messages that are not expressible through words or when words seem to be inadequate to convey a message. This is because gestures convey meanings in a holistic manner and can therefore be used to tell what is on a person’s mind.

Goldin-Meadow (2006) demonstrates that gestures can be used to express a message that cannot be found in the speaker’s speech (p.37). If gestures and body language were to be developed and studied expensively, the depth of communication between people would therefore be richer.

Gestures can be used to make speedy communications. Pointing gestures can be used to direct the attention of a person to a particular area in a much quicker manner than if speech were to be used. For example, extending an arm full length, with an index finger, will direct the recipient’s attention to a particular area. In addition to this, gestures can facilitate interactions by projecting what may be said or done next and therefore helping to save time.

Gestures also act as mechanism of change and a speaker can use them to reveal information about their cognitive status. From the information conveyed by the gestures, the listeners can alter their input accordingly making it possible for the listener to benefit optimally form the speaker.

Gestures can also help to overcome the communication barrier that occurs with speech when people do not share a language. Language differences make it impossible to for people to communicate without the use of a translator. At times, translators are not available and when they are, communication takes place at a slow pace and there is the possibility of miscommunication. Goldin-Meadow (2006) states that gestures can be cultural neutral allowing people from diverse cultures to communicate effectively using a gesture system (p.38).

Why Gestures Can’t Replace Spoken Language

Fully evolved languages provide a speaker with a vast and constantly evolving stock of symbolic units which enable them to represent content in a manner that is subjective, situational adapted, and recipient designed (Tenjes, 2001, p.304). The same cannot be said for gestures and even if deeply studied and developed, it is hard to envision gestures being used to articulate some of the thoughts and ideas that can be communicated using words.

While gestures can have some success in communicating about objects that are real and visible, they prove to be inadequate when talking about abstract concepts or giving narratives of things those are not there. An experiment by Tenjes (2001) in which the subjects were asked to describe an imaginary journey to another person demonstrated that gestures proved to be inadequate when engaging in narratives (p.312).

It is also hard to represent exact information by use of gestures. In a study by Holle and Thomas (2007), participants were shown video clips were a person made gestures to one of two objectives in front of him. One was a short wide dish while the other one was a tall, think glass (p.1178).

The participants found it hard to distinguish what the person in the clip was illustrating though his gestures. This demonstrated that it is hard to integrate a different target word into a gesture context. It would therefore be very difficult to communicate details by relying on gestures alone.

Gestures sometimes require more time to implement than would be the case using speech. For example, iconic gestures which are typically large complex movements are performed in a relatively slow and careful manner. Using such gestures for communication would therefore require more time than is used for verbal communication.

Use of gestures could have an unfavorable impact on communication efforts. Studies on the use of iconic gestures reveal that subjects found it hard to select the correct corresponding speech unit of an iconic gesture (Holle & Thomas, 2007, p.1176).

While some gestures, such as the nod indicating ok, are so conventionalized in their form that they can be understood independently of a speech context, most gestures only make sense in a given context and if used without the contextual background, they would not be easily understood. Tenjes (2001) elaborates that while a hand indicating rolling motion will make sense when used to accompany the statement “the meeting went on and on”, the gesture will have little definite meaning if used on its own (p.306).

Researchers agree that the meanings of gestures are typically vague and while gestures may have a recognizable physical feature, their meaning can seldom be derived from their form with a high degree of certainty (Tenjes, 2001, p.308). As such, the shape and dynamic of a gesture will not be enough to supply an unambiguous meaning which would be necessary for gestures to replace verbal communication. Even to experienced analysts, gestures and body movements are difficult to interpret.

Tenjes (2001) notes that gestures often stand in a “loosely metaphorical relationship to the action they project” (p.309). This is because gestures draw from other action domains and the gesture can therefore have multiple functions at an instance. It is therefore very difficult to investigate the meaning of gestures when used on their own.

Using Gestures and Speech

A more possible implementation of gestures and body language would be in conjunction with spoken language. Gestures sometimes convey some redundant information to what is being said. This bimodal information will lead to an enriched message and increase the likelihood of the message being properly understood by the recipient (Holle & Thomas, 2007, p.1176).

In the case that the recipient does not properly understand the spoken message, the redundant information communicated through the gesture will act as a confirmation. In addition to this, listeners are able to retrieve additional information from a speaker who makes use of gestures. Gestures therefore facilitate language comprehension and they can be used to disambiguate speech since the listeners rely on more than just the speech content to understand the message.

A growing body of research indicates that gestures play an important role in mathematical and scientific reasoning with some researchers suggesting that gestures can enrich the communicative process by making learning more efficient. Goldin-Meadow (2006) supports this view by stating that people often find it helpful to externalize their thoughts when they are faced with a difficult problem to solve (p.37). Gesturing lightens the cognitive load of the person and permits the person to allocate memory resources to other tasks at hand.

Gestures have a complementary effect to speaking as can be demonstrated by the revelations by Goldin-Meadow (2006) that people speak less fluently when they are prevented from gesturing (p.36). This is because gesturing lightens the cognitive load of the gesturer and therefore reducing the memory load. When gesturing is not allowed, there is decreased performance in communication as a result of a delay in the auditory feedback (Namy & Newcombe, 2008, p.248).

Gestures can give emphasis to the verbal content that they are accompanying. Gestures give valuable additional information to therefore making the message being conveyed even more powerful than would be the case if only words were used. People who observe gestural and spoken information together form a better understanding of what is being communicated compared to people who only hear the speech (Namy & Newcombe, 2008, p.248).

Gestures can be used to draw the attention of the listener to what is being said. This is because gestures are sometimes placed at the onset of just before the speech unit to which it relates to can commence and they therefore act as a foreshadower (Tenjes, 2001, p.309).

Discussion and Conclusion

Gestures and signs are an important element of communication and they can be used to deliver meanings without the need for using spoken language. This research has demonstrated that while gestures and body language are useful, they should not be used to replace verbal communication.

This is because in most cases, gestures and body language acquire their meanings in the context of conversation that is taking place. It can therefore be state that while gestures may be utterances on their own, they are most valuable when they are employed as components of utterances in alternation with speech or employed in conjunction with speech.

This paper set out to argue that gestures and signs can make a difference in communication in our life; they cannot completely take the place of spoken language. The paper began by highlighting that gestures and body language can be developed to the point where they can be used for communication purposes without the use of words.

However, the paper has notes that gestures suffer from significant setbacks which make it impossible for them to replace speech for communication purposes. If gestures and body language were to be used alone, human communication efforts would suffer greatly. From the discussions presented in this paper, it is clear that gestures cannot fully replace speech for communication purposes in our fast based world; instead, the two forms of communication, verbal and non-verbal, should be used together.


Goldin-Meadow, S. (2006). Talking and Thinking With Our Hands. Association for Psychological Science, 15(1), 34-39.

Holle, H. & Thomas, G. (2007). The Role of Iconic Gestures in Speech Disambiguation: ERP Evidence. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(7), 1175–1192.

Namy, L. & Newcombe, N. S. (2008). More than just hand waving: review of hearing gestures: how our hands help us think. Journal of Cognition and Development, 9(2), 247–252.

Sfard, A. (2009). What’s all the fuss about gestures? A commentary. Educ Stud Math, 70(1), 191-200.

Tenjes, S. (2001). Gestures as pre-positions in communication. Trames, 5(55), 302-320.

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