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How To Learn Sign Language

Why Do We Move Our Hands When We Talk?


Linguistics isn’t just the study of
words or sounds: it’s the study of all the parts of conversation. That includes gesture analysis, which looks
at “co-speech gestures”: not posture or gaze,
but winking, or sticking out your tongue, or how arms and hands move alongside speech. Just to be clear, this isn’t about
sign languages: those are systematic and rule-governed with
elaborate syntax and vocabulary. Signed languages are language, but gestures
are “paralinguistic”. They accompany language. Gesture analysts make their job easier by
talking about different categories of gestures, which explain how they relate to meaning. And those are: Number one: Iconic. These gestures represent a literal object, such as a flat surface, or
a car weaving through traffic. Number two: Metaphoric. Gestures that symbolize an abstract concept, like “before” and “after”,
or “working together”. I do this a lot, and on this greenscreen those
metaphoric gestures become a bit more literal with the help of
graphics. Apologies to my animator. Three: Deictic. That’s pointing to things, positioning yourself to people,
or places or things, like pointing behind the camera
or ‘over there’. Number four: Pragmatic. Like offering the floor to someone, or “don’t bother me right now”. And finally, Beat. The rhythm of gestures alongside the
natural stress patterns of speech. All these categories– I’m really self-conscious about every move
I’m making now. These categories can coexist as well: often gestures that are performed ‘on beat’
also fit into another category. There’s one more type of gesture that serves
a slightly different purpose: emblems. Emblems are named gestures that don’t have
to occur alongside speech to have meaning. Like “thumbs up”. It has a meaning outside of
the context of speech: in a lot of the world, you can flash someone
the thumbs up and they’ll almost certainly understand that
you’re signalling approval, or that everything’s okay. But if you swap the fingers,
it doesn’t have the same meaning. And even If I stick with the thumb, if I change angle and arm position, I’m trying to hitch-hike. The form of the gesture is tied
to the established meaning. It’s an emblem. Which means it’s not universal.
The meaning is learned. And context can change it. That thumbs up? In some countries, it used to be rude, but because of globalization, that’s no
longer the common reading there. Although there will be people who remember its
rude history and could still interpret it
the way. Emblems can change definition over time,
they can be created, they can be forgotten. I would demonstrate that by dabbing, but I don’t want a GIF of that to
haunt me for the rest of my life. So why do we do it? What does gesturing actually accomplish? Well, first: redundancy for
decoding and encoding errors. Languages have agreement all over the place:
there’s redundancy baked into everything. Spoken language is ephemeral. Once something is said, it’s gone. Those sound waves have moved on
and they are not coming back. Gesture is another form of redundancy: it doesn’t matter if a loud [engine noise]
drove by at just the wrong time– you may have figured out a vague idea
of what was being said. Next, you can show emphasis and importance. Or if you’re explaining an abstract concept, using metaphoric gestures to visibly explain
things can help make it clear — either to your conversation partner, or just
in your own head. And sometimes, it is so much easier
and clearer just to point. Gestures are important to communication, and so important that if our
hands and arms are unavailable, we will use our head, our eyes,
our other limbs to compensate. Gestures can also show
understanding of social norms. If you’re embarrassed to say something, you can make that clear by covering your face
or your eyes, or by doing the move that looks like “there are no paper towels or hand dryers
in this bathroom so “I guess I’ll just shake ’em dry”. Or if you want to distance yourself from what
you’re saying you can use scare quotes, or you can put a boundary around yourself. Gestures also seem to help us
get the words out in the first place. That’s why people gesture even when
they’re on the phone, and why people who have been
blind since birth gesture. Gesture is intrinsic to language. It helps us communicate more effectively and
more elaborately, and to pass on information and feelings that
are difficult to put into words. Gestures are basically emoji
for the real world. One of my co-authors, Gretchen McCulloch,
has a book called Because Internet, all about internet language. You can find out more at the links
in the description.

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