"Long before it's in the papers"
March 29, 2016


Blind people found to gesture like sighted ones when speaking

March 29, 2016
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science.
and World Science staff

When speak­ing, peo­ple who are blind from birth ges­ture in much the same way as sight­ed peo­ple—and they do it in a way char­ac­ter­is­tic of fel­low speak­ers of their own lan­guage, re­search sug­gests.

Peo­ple the world over ges­ture when they talk, and they tend to ges­ture in cer­tain ways de­pend­ing on the lan­guage they speak. The new find­ings sug­gest these ges­tur­al varia­t­ions don’t emerge from watch­ing oth­er speak­ers make the ges­tures, but from learn­ing the lan­guage it­self.

Courtesy of APS

“Adult speak­ers who are blind from birth al­so ges­ture when they talk, and these ges­tures re­sem­ble the ges­tures of sight­ed adults speak­ing the same lan­guage,” said psy­cho­log­i­cal sci­ent­ist and lead re­search­er Sey­da Öz­ça­lis­kan of Geor­gia State Un­ivers­ity. 

“This is quite in­ter­est­ing, since blind speak­ers can­not be learn­ing these lan­guage-spe­cif­ic ges­tures by watch­ing oth­er speak­ers ges­ture.”

The find­ings are pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a jour­nal of the As­socia­t­ion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

While re­search had shown that speak­ers of dif­fer­ent lan­guages used ges­tures in dif­fer­ent ways, the or­i­gin of these dif­fer­ences was not clear. Öz­ça­lis­kan and col­leagues from the Uni­vers­ity of Chi­ca­go de­cid­ed to study the ques­tion by com­par­ing the ges­tures of sight­ed and con­gen­i­tally blind people.

The re­search­ers chose to fo­cus spe­cif­ic­ally on ges­tures re­lat­ed to mo­tion across space, which tend to show con­si­der­able varia­t­ion across lan­guages. Eng­lish speak­ers, for ex­am­ple, typ­ic­ally com­bine both the man­ner of mo­tion (e.g., run­ning) and the path of mo­tion (e.g., en­ter­ing) in­to a sin­gle ges­ture. Turk­ish speak­ers, on the oth­er hand, pro­duce sep­a­rate ges­tures to in­di­cate man­ner and path.

Özçaliskan and col­leagues re­cruited 40 con­gen­i­tally blind adult­s—20 na­tive Eng­lish speak­ers and 20 na­tive Turk­ish speak­ers—to par­ti­ci­pate. They al­so re­cruited 40 sight­ed speak­ers of each lan­guage.

The par­ti­ci­pants were pre­sented with three-di­men­sion­ dio­ra­mas that con­tained a se­ries of fig­urines de­pict­ing mo­tion across space. Some of the scenes showed a fig­ure mak­ing a path to a land­mark (e.g., run­ning in­to a house), some showed the fig­ure mak­ing a path over a land­mark (e.g., flip­ping over a beam), and oth­ers showed a fig­ure mak­ing a path from a land­mark (e.g., run­ning away from a mo­tor­cy­cle).

Par­ti­ci­pants ex­plored the scene, us­ing their hands to tou­ch and feel the com­po­nents; they were told that al­though the fig­ur­ine ap­peared three times in the scene, they should think of her move­ment as rep­re­sent­ing a sin­gle con­tin­u­ous mo­tion. The par­ti­ci­pants were then asked to de­scribe the scene.

The re­sults showed that speak­ers’ pat­terns of ges­tures di­verged ac­cord­ing to the lan­guage they spoke. Re­gard­less of wheth­er they were sight­ed or blind, Turk­ish speak­ers pro­duced more sep­a­rated sen­tence un­it­s—in both speech and ges­ture—compared to Eng­lish speak­ers. And sight­ed and blind Eng­lish speak­ers pro­duced more con­flated sen­tence un­its in their speech and ges­tures than did Turk­ish speak­ers, the au­thors said.

While the study fo­cused on Eng­lish and Turk­ish, the re­search­ers say these two rep­re­sent a broader pat­tern in the world’s lan­guages. When it comes to ex­press­ing mo­tion in space, Dutch, Swed­ish, Rus­sian, Ice­land­ic, and Ser­bo-Cro­a­tian are si­m­i­lar to Eng­lish, while French, Span­ish, He­brew, Jap­a­nese are more like Turk­ish.

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When speaking, people who are blind from birth gesture in much the same way as sighted people—and they do it in a way characteristic of their own language, a study has found. People the world over gesture when they talk, and they tend to gesture in certain ways depending on the language they speak. The new findings suggest these gestural variations don’t emerge from watching other speakers make the gestures, but from learning the language itself. “Adult speakers who are blind from birth also gesture when they talk, and these gestures resemble the gestures of sighted adults speaking the same language. This is quite interesting, since blind speakers cannot be learning these language-specific gestures by watching other speakers gesture,” explains psychological scientist and lead researcher Seyda Özçaliskan of Georgia State University. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. While research had shown that speakers of different languages used gestures in different ways, the origin of these differences was not clear. Özçaliskan and colleagues Ché Lucero and Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago decided to study the question by comparing the gestures of sighted and congenitally blind individuals. The researchers decided to focus specifically on gestures related to motion across space, which tend to show considerable variation across languages. English speakers, for example, typically combine both the manner of motion (e.g., running) and the path of motion (e.g., entering) into a single gesture. Turkish speakers, on the other hand, produce separate gestures to indicate manner and path. Özçaliskan and colleagues recruited 40 congenitally blind adults—20 native English speakers and 20 native Turkish speakers—to participate. They also recruited 40 sighted speakers of each language. The participants were presented with three-dimensional dioramas that contained a series of figurines depicting motion across space. Some of the scenes showed a figure making a path to a landmark (e.g., running into a house), some showed the figure making a path over a landmark (e.g., flipping over a beam), and others showed a figure making a path from a landmark (e.g., running away from a motorcycle). Participants explored the scene, using their hands to touch and feel the components; they were told that although the figurine appeared three times in the scene, they should think of her movement as representing a single continuous motion. The participants were then asked to describe the scene. The results showed that speakers’ patterns of gestures diverged according to the language they spoke. Regardless of whether they were sighted or blind, Turkish speakers produced more separated sentence units—in both speech and gesture—compared to English speakers. And sighted and blind English speakers produced more conflated sentence units in their speech and gestures than did Turkish speakers, the authors said. While the study focused on speech and gesture in English and Turkish, the researchers note that these two languages represent a broader pattern in the world’s languages. When it comes to expressing motion in space, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Icelandic, and Serbo-Croatian are similar to English, while French, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese cluster with Turkish.