Blind Adults Learn Native Gesture Patterns By Learning To Speak A Language, Researchers Find

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Adults who have been blind since birth use gestures similar to those used by sighted adults speaking the same language, despite never having seen these gestures as children, a researcher at Georgia State University and her colleagues have found.

Adults who have been blind since birth use gestures similar to those used by sighted adults speaking the same language, despite never having seen these gestures as children, a researcher at Georgia State University and her colleagues have found.

The study, “Is Seeing Gesture Necessary to Gesture Like A Native Speaker?” was published this month in the journal Psychological Science.

In the study, Şeyda Özçalışkan, associate professor of psychology at Georgia State, and her collaborators, Che Lucero and Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, examined the gestures used by English- and Turkish-speaking adults who have been blind since birth.

Their gestures were compared with those of their fellow language speakers who are sighted. The sighted adults in each language were divided into two subgroups, one group who wore blindfolds and one who didn't.

In both English and Turkish, blind individuals produced gestures that resembled the gestures of sighted individuals who spoke the same language. The results suggest that hearing a particular language is sufficient to gesture like a native speaker of that language, Özçalışkan and Goldin-Meadow said.

“I think what was surprising was the strength of the link between gesture and speech,” Özçalışkan said. “It shows how speech drives patterns of gesture production, both in the blind and the sighted.”

Children first use gestures to help them communicate meanings they cannot yet do with speech, and these gestures might help with the child’s linguistic and cognitive development. Even as adults, we continue to use gestures while talking in order to convey meanings alongside speech.

Although all of the adults speaking the same language produced gestures similar to one another, those who spoke English used gestures in different patterns than those who spoke Turkish.

This, Özçalışkan explained, comes from how spoken languages differ in the way they describe certain information, such as how a person or object moves.

It’s a matter of what information is placed where in a sentence, the researcher said. English speakers, for example, typically would say “he ran into the house,” while a Turkish speaker often would say “he entered the house by running."

These language-specific patterns were evident not only in the speech but also the gestures produced by blind and sighted individuals within their respective languages, she said.

Özçalışkan, whose previous research examined gestures’ role in language learning in typically developing children and children with developmental disorders, said she and her colleagues would like to explore the link between gesture and speech in blind children learning structurally different languages.

While the research shows the emergence of gesture doesn’t require the opportunity to view others’ gestures, Özçalışkan and Goldin-Meadow said they want to investigate whether the ability to see others gesture affects how children develop those gestures, and possibly even speech itself.

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Jeremy Craig
Georgia State University
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