Gesture Topics

This section is intended to provide basic information about the study of gesture as it is conducted here in the McNeill Lab. It should be understood as incomplete, inaccurate, and outdated. The best way to learn how we think about and analyze gesture is to visit our lab, which we encourage you to do. For the moment, we are making available a description of our annotative practice which summarizes our methods. We also urge you to visit our Multimodal Annotation Tools page [Ed.: Link Forthcoming], which describes a workshop organized by Katharina Rohlfing, Dan Loehr, and Susan Duncan. You'll find information both about the various tools available and about how using different tools can shape analysis.

Why do we consider gesture to be part of language?

The function of gesture as a purposeful rhetorical device has long been recognized, but analysis of the spontaneous gestures which accompany speech, and their relevance to cognition and language, has been addressed most extensively in work by David McNeill, drawing on earlier work by Adam Kendon.

McNeill claims that the extremely close synchrony between gesture and speech indicates that the two operate as an inseparable unit, reflecting different semiotic aspects of the cognitive structure that underlies them both. Evidence for this tight synchrony includes the fact that disrupting speech (as during delayed auditory feedback) disrupts gesture, that stutterers modify their gestures to maintain synchrony with speech, and equally, that deliberate mismatch between gesture and speech can influence a participant's recall of a narration.

Since McNeill's seminal work, the inquiry into the connection between gesture and speech has received progressively more attention. Research on language acquisition, for example, indicates that gesture plays a role in children's learning. In addition, gesture may be an indicator of transitional periods with respect to the acquisition of new concepts and directing attention to gesture can be shown to have pedagogical value.

To a linguist, however, perhaps the most compelling implication of the proposal that gesture and speech are different expressions of the same conceptual content is that gesture can be used to access information about language. If gesture and speech are a single system, analysis of gesture can eliminate some of the circularity involved in using speech as a primary data-source for the study of language. In other words, because gesture is a visual manifestation of the imagistic aspects of cognition it can inform our understanding of the structure underlying the linguistic aspects of cognition.