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To make your point, gesture when you speak

January 7, 2010 |  7:00 am

Bush Former President George W. Bush once gave a speech in which he said, "The left hand now knows what the right hand is doing." But while stating this, he gestured first with his right hand and and then with his left. The "Bushism" made Letterman's Top 10 list, but it also illustrates a point of contention among some language researchers: Just how entwined are speech and gestures?

Researchers at Colgate University offer new evidence that speech and gesture form an integrated system of language. In a paper published online this week in the journal Psychological Science, they described two experiments in which people were able to comprehend information faster if speech and gestures were congruent. In a second study, they showed that people can't help but consider one form of language (a gesture) when they are processing another form (speech).

The studies add some significance to the importance of gestures. Gesture is usually considered as a context for speech, but the studies showed that speech is also a context for gesture. "The two modalities may co-determine meaning during language comprehension," the authors write. Speech and gesture, they say, "are simply two sides of the same coin: language."

The take-home message for those of us who wish to communicate better: "[I]f you really want to make your point clear and readily understood, let your words and hands do the talking."

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  Associated Press