Gesturing as an Integral Part of Human Communication

Human gesture has been studied for over 60 years (Efron 1941, Kendon 1972, 1980, McNeill 1992, Goldin-Meadow and Wagner 2005), and we know some of the ways in which gesture facilitates and enhances vocal communication as well as cognitive and symbolic processes. Gesture produced while speaking can enhance information transfer and supplement the meaning of the linguistic signal (McNeill 1992). Though not normally produced without speech in hearing people, gesture can assume linguistic properties when users are prevented from talking (Goldin-Meadow 2001), even in children raised in linguistically poor environments (Goldin-Meadow and Mylander 1984). When a person is having trouble expressing a thought through speech, simultaneous gesturing may facilitate lexical retrieval (Morrel-Samuels and Krauss 1992), and even provide a kind of cognitive arena in which to think when speech does not provide the appropriate means of expression (Goldin-Meadow et al. 2001).

While some specific human gestures are universal, many are culture-specific. But we also show so-called "beat" gestures, which simply emphasize the flow of speech (McNeill 1992). We habitually gesture in the presence of speech, often in precise synchrony with speech (McNeill 1985). We even gesture in the absence of a visible audience, as we do when talking on the phone (Morris 1977, 1994), or communicating with blind individuals (Iverson and Goldin-Meadow 1998). The fact that gestures accompany speech even in situations in which its communicative value seems null, emphasizes its automaticity and encourages investigation into the possible evolution of this ubiquitous behavior.

What is even more remarkable is that some human gestures occur without learning from others. The ethologist Eibl-Eibesfeldt, who followed the expressive behavior of a congenitally deaf and blind girl named Sabine, observed her stretching her hand and pushing it back, palms facing outwards, in a gesture of rejection (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1973), without her ever having observed such a gesture. Comparative theorists who view the difference between human language and other forms of communication as one of degree only argue that human linguistic capacity expanded from abilities already present in other animals, particularly closely related species. If this hypothesis is correct, and if gesturing is integral to human communication, we should expect to find certain precursors of this communication strategy in nonhuman primates.

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