hand gestures
The gestures representing actions like ‘drinking’ and ‘smoking’ were the most transparent gestures because people can easily recognise them based on their everyday actions.

Staff at the University of Birmingham have been investigating humans’ capacity to communicate without speech and relying only in their gestures, and how comprehensible these body movements are to an interlocutor.  

Dr Gerardo Ortega at the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham and Professor Asli Özyürek at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands created a database of gestures by investigating how people represent certain concepts with their hands and body. Different people were presented with words like ‘spoon’, ‘eating’, ‘pyramid’, ‘deer’ and they had to produce a spontaneous gesture to represent the same word. The study found that instead of producing different gestures, people were surprisingly systematic and for some concepts they made the same gesture. For example, for ‘spoon’ most people produced the action of brining a spoon to the mouth. For ‘pyramid’, most people traced a triangular shape. An interesting finding is that most of the times, people used actions to represent all concepts. Instead of tracing shapes in the air there was a high prevalence of gestures showing how the body interacts with the concept they are referring to.

Dr Gerardo Ortega said: "When we think of language we immediately think of a spoken or written word whose orthography and meaning can be searched in a dictionary. But the reality is that humans developed the capacity of language during face-to-face interactions where the body is a fundamental tool to express a message. If you are in a noisy bar, you’d probably produce a gesture recreating the action of bringing a glass to the mouth to tell your friend that you’d like a pint. This example shows that we have the capacity to communicate without relying on speech and using our bodies. Gestures have this communicative power because they have the property of iconicity: they recreate the form of the concept people are talking about."

The research was split into two studies:

For study 1 twenty Dutch adults took part in a (silent) gesture generation task where they had to come up with a spontaneous gesture, without speaking, representing specific concepts. The form of these gestures was documented and the most recurrent ones were selected for the database.

For Study 2 Eighteen native speakers of Dutch took were shown the set of systematic gestures from study 1 and were asked to rate how well they represented their meaning through ratings.

The researchers found that not all gestures could be interpreted with equal ease. The gestures representing actions like ‘drinking’ and ‘smoking’ were the most transparent gestures because people can easily recognise them based on their everyday actions. Gestures that consisted of traces of shapes, like ‘pyramid’ or ‘house’, were not very transparent because those outlines are hard to interpret and could potentially refer to many other objects.

This study has resulted in a database consisting of professionally filmed videos of all the gesture which are now available at an open access repository. These gestures are free to use for empirical studies exploring questions about language processing, learning and evolution and will be a useful aid for researchers in a wide range of disciplines such as psychology, cognitive sciences, and sign language linguistics.

Thanks to an agreement between the University of Birmingham and Springer (the editorial house) the manuscript is also available for open access from the journal Behavior and Research Methods.

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  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • The Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham is a world-leading centre of excellence for both teaching and research in English Language and Linguistics. The department has an excellent track record in teaching and an active research culture that emphasises excellent publications, productive collaboration within and beyond the University, and wide-ranging public engagement. Staff in the department research, publish and teach across a wide range of English Language and Linguistics research areas, including corpus linguistics, discourse analysis and English Language Teaching. They have particularly strong teaching and research interests in corpus research, discourse analysis, stylistics, English language teaching, applied linguistics, everyday creativity, metaphor, multimodality, new media, historical linguistics, and the politics of English Language.
  • Dr Gerardo Ortega completed his PhD at the Deafness, Language and Cognition Research Centre at University College London. He then took a position as postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. He secured a competitive research grant from the Dutch Science foundation to explore the role of gesture during the acquisition of Sign Language of the Netherlands as a second language. His research explores how iconicity and gesture may influence different aspects related to the acquisition and processing of sign languages by deaf children and hearing adults. He has used behavioural and electrophysiological methods to investigate various sign languages including British Sign Language, Sign Language of the Netherlands, Turkish Sign Language, and Mexican Sign Language.