It has long been assumed that, while people may speak different languages across the globe, when it comes to depicting concepts via gestures, the actions used are universal.

New research by a Japanese academic using Japanese and English speakers, however, has cast doubt on this long-held belief.

Sotaro Kita, senior lecturer at the University of Bristol’s department of experimental psychology, shows that British and Japanese sometimes use different hand gestures when expressing the same event due to linguistic differences.

Kita’s findings have recently inspired a favorable response at the British Association’s festival of science. He believes the study of gestures can have positive spinoffs both in business and education.

The academic believes that future research on other languages will show the link between language and gesture. Kita’s discovery is reinforced by his own preliminary findings, which show that competent bilingual speakers change their gestures according to the language they are using.

The lecturer, who graduated from the University of Tokyo, first noticed the phenomenon by chance when he was based at the University of Chicago and was conducting a general study of gestures.

He decided to put his preliminary findings to the test when he arrived in England.

At Bristol, he conducted tests using three groups of English, Japanese and Turkish speakers. He chose Turkish because it shares many similarities with Japanese in terms of structure, while at the same time the two countries are culturally different.

Participants watched a cartoon featuring the black and white cat Sylvester and his elusive prey, Tweety Bird.

Participants were told to recount the cartoon story to each other in their native language.

As they spoke, Kita monitored the spontaneous gestures each person used.

He noticed the English speakers sometimes used gestures differing from Japanese and Turkish speakers when describing the same event.

A good example was when participants were conveying a scene in which Sylvester, having swallowed a bowling ball, rolls down a street.

The Japanese and Turkish speakers were more likely to use “manner-only gestures” (depicting rotation without change of location) or “trajectory-only gestures” (depicting change of location without rotation) than the English speakers, who tended to use gestures that depicted rotation and change of location together.

Kita argues that these differences can be explained by linguistic differences.

English can express both the manner and trajectory of Sylvester’s movements with a concise expression involving only one verb such as, “He rolls down the street.”

Japanese and Turkish, however, require a more complex expression involving two verbs such as, “He descends as he rolls.”

When the groups were asked to describe Sylvester swinging on a rope to catch Tweety, the English speakers predominantly used arc gestures that depicted the arc trajectory, whereas the Japanese and Turkish speakers tended to use straight gestures that depicted motion without the arc trajectory.

Kita suggests the difference stems from the Japanese and Turkish lack of the verb “to swing.” They cannot easily express the concept of movement with an arc trajectory so they use the straight gesture.

English speakers, however, use the arc gesture as their language can readily express the change of location and the arc-shaped trajectory.

In an interview with Kyodo News, Kita said the universal wisdom is that these kinds of gestures are the same. “No matter what language you speak or which culture you are from, if you see the same event you depict by gesture in the same way. My study, I think, is the first one to show that that is not the case.

“My research suggests that speakers of different languages generate different spatial images of the same event in a way that matches the expressive possibilities of their particular language,” he said.

Kita has not developed his findings yet, but he said it could be possible to find certain gestures shared within language groups, such as Romance (Spanish, Italian and French) and Germanic (English, German, Swedish and Dutch), as well as similarities in gestures with Turkish, Japanese and Korean speakers.

He feels that while his findings might not have an immediate practical application, the gesture study is important.

Kita noted, for example, the growing use of depicting facial expressions using punctuation marks on computers. He feels that many are very wooden and cannot express gestures properly.

“To make these computer-generated figures more natural, I think we need to understand how speech and gesture work together in human communication,” he said.

Teacher-children communication often relies heavily on gestures as opposed to speaking, and Kita said knowing more about gesturing will assist such exchanges.

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