Essays by Stan Tenen

Excerpts From: Why People Gesture When They Speak
by Jana Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow

The complete article from which these excerpts were taken was published in Nature, November 19, 1998
To request a copy of the complete article, email the author, Susan Golden-Meadow, at
A more detailed version of this article was published in Developmental Psychology.

Omitted portions of this article, and editorial notes by Mr. Tenen, are indicated by bracketed, italicized elipses [...] and text.

Levanah Tenen
Meru Foundation

Why People Gesture When They Speak

When people talk, they gesture. However, individuals who are blind from birth never actually see speakers moving their hands as they talk and thus have no model for gesturing. Here we show that congenitally blind speakers gesture despite their lack of a visual model, even when speaking to a blind listener. Gesture neither requires a model, nor an observant partner, to appear in natural conversation.

Gestures are produced by speakers of all cultural and linguistic backgrounds,1,2,3 and emerge in young children even before the development of language.4,5 Moreover, the spontaneous hand movements that co-occur with speech are not random. Gestures convey information to listeners6 that can complement or even supplement the information relayed in speech.7,8 While a great deal is known about when and what speakers gesture, little is known about why they gesture.


We found that all 12 blind speakers gestured as they spoke, despite the fact that they had never seen gesture. The blind group gestured at a rate not reliably different from the sighted group [figure omitted], and conveyed the same information using the same range of gesture forms. For example, speakers, both blind and sighted, tilted a C-shaped hand in the air as though pouring liquid from a glass to indicate that the liquid had been transferred to a different container. [Note that this "pouring" gesture appears to describe the gesture which forms the Hebrew letter "Dalet," which means "to pour," or "to pour out." --SNT, Meru]Blind speakers apparently do not require experience receiving gestures before spontaneously producing gestures of their own. [...]

[...W]e examined whether speakers gestured even when talking to a listener known to be blind -- and thus obviously unable to profit from information conveyed by gesture. We asked four additional children [...], each blind from birth, to participate in the same reasoning-task protocol. However, these subjects were explicitly told that the experimenter herself was blind. Nevertheless, we found that all of the blind speakers gestured when addressing the blind experimenter. Moreover, they gestured at a rate not reliably different from that of sighted-with-sighted or sighted-with-blind dyads [figure omitted]. Blind speakers apparently do not gesture solely to convey information to the blind listener.

Our findings underscore the robustness of gesture in talk. Gesture depends on neither a model nor an observer and thus appears integral to the speaking process itself. These findings leave open the possibility that the gestures which co-occur with speech may themselves reflect,7 or even facilitate,10 the thinking that underlies speaking.

Jana M. Iverson
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405

Susan Goldin-Meadow
University of Chicago
Chicago, IL 60637

1. Wundt, W. Völkerpsychologie: Eine Untersuchung der Entwicklungsgesetze von Sprache Mythus und Zitte,Vol. 1, 4th Ed. (Alfred Kröner, Stuttgart, 1921).

2. Mead, G.H. Mind, self, and society from the standpoint of a social behaviorist (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1934).

3. Feyereisen, P. & de Lannoy, J.-D. Gestures and speech: Psychological investigations (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1991).

4. Acredolo, L.P., & Goodwyn, S.W. Child Development 59, 450-466 (1988).

5. Bates, E. Language and Context (Academic Press, New York, 1976).

7. McNeill, D. Hand and mind: What gesture reveals about thought (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992).

8. Goldin-Meadow, S., Alibali, M..W. & Church, R.B. Psychological Review 100, 279-297 (1993).

10. Rauscher, F.H., Krauss, R.M. & Chen, Y. Psychological Science 70, 226-231 (1996).