Study: Hand Gestures Can Influence What People Hear

Category: Health


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. perceive / pərˈsiv / (v) – to realize or understand something

    She failed to perceive the hurt in Matthew’s voice.

  2. get (something) across / gɛt əˈkrɔs / (phrasal) – to communicate something clearly

    Ivan struggles to get his ideas across to members of other departments.

  3. prominent / ˈprɒm ə nənt / (adj) – important

    The man is a prominent figure in the country’s history.

  4. syllable / ˈsɪl ə bəl / (n) – a unit into which words are divided when pronounced

    The word “potato” has three syllables.

  5. pair / pɛər / (v) – to put two things together

    I was paired with Jen for the science project.


Read the text below.

Using hand gestures while speaking can influence how people perceive the words being spoken, a new study has found.

In face-to-face communication, people often use hand movements such as beat gestures to get their message across. Beat gestures are simple up and down hand movements that highlight prominent words in speech.

For this particular study, the researchers wanted to investigate whether or not beat gestures can change the way people interpret the words that they hear.

Research participants watched videos of one person saying Dutch words that have different meanings depending on the stressed syllable. One similar example in English would be the word “object,” which can be stressed on the first or second syllable. “OB-ject” means “an item,” while “ob-JECT” means “to oppose something.”

In the videos, the person said each word with a beat gesture on either the first or second syllable. After watching the videos, the participants had to indicate which syllable was stressed.

Results showed that the participants were more likely to hear stress on a syllable if it was paired with a beat gesture. The participants also incorrectly identified the stressed syllable if the audio did not match the beat gesture.

One scientist explained that using gestures when speaking can increase lung pressure, which can affect the vocal quality in stressed speech. This could signify why the participants tended to associate the stress of a word with a beat gesture.

According to the researchers, their study poses important applications in real life. In loud environments, people might rely on beat gestures as visual aids to communicate effectively. It can also help people understand each other during the pandemic, when some cannot lip read because of face masks or the reduced size of people’s faces on screens at online meetings.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

• After reading the article, are you going to start using more beat gestures when communicating with others in English? Why or why not?
• Aside from beat gestures, what other non-verbal forms of communication can help get your message across (e.g. facial expressions)? Discuss.

Discussion B

• Do you think it’s possible to communicate without using gestures? Why or why not?
• What do you think are the possible dangers of using gestures to communicate (e.g. not knowing that a gesture you are using is rude)? Discuss.