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Giuliana SalvatoLanguage educators should teach a vocabulary of gestures along with words, says Italian professor Giuliana Salvato.

Hand gestures imperative to communication, says UWindsor researcher

UWindsor languages expert Giuliana Salvato says hand gestures are vital tools for fully communicating, so when teaching adults a new language, it should become common practice to teach culturally-specific gestures along with speech.

In her new book Looking Beyond Words: Gestures in the Pedagogy of Second Languages in Multilingual Canada, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Dr. Salvato explains the communicative and cognitive value of gestures and their repercussions in language education.

“If you are Italian, you belong to the Italian community and growing up you will naturally acquire a repertoire of cultural gestures specific to the Italian community,” she says. “It is a disservice to not teach gestures to students who are trying to become truly bilingual or multilingual.”

Salvato, an associate professor of Italian studies, says there is an issue with Italian gestures being stereotyped—people focus more on the stereotype than on the reason why speakers produce gestures. As part of her research, Salvato asked Canadian students to interpret Italian cultural gestures.

“To truly learn Italian, or any other language, I think students need to become acquainted with the cultural gestures that belong to the target community as well as the values that that community attributes to gestures.”

She says some gestures are recognizable only to native speakers, though some have become internationally understood—the high-five, the thumbs-up, or a looped forefinger and thumb to indicate that everything is okay.

“Through experience of living in a community of speakers and learning your native tongue in that community of speakers, you basically develop ability of communicating appropriate to that particular community,” she says.

In addition to cultural gestures, Salvato says there are cognitive value gestures as well, which are entrenched in the expression of thought. When delivering information, people automatically and naturally use these gestures in concert with words.

“We don’t even think about it, but when we communicate we express our thoughts, and in expressing our thoughts we use the verbal and non-verbal channels,” she says. “This defines humanity. No matter what the culture of origin of that humanity, everybody does it.”

Examples of cognitive gestures include someone pacing their speech by hand gestures, using hands to show the size of an object, or tapping on the table to emphasize a point, all in an effort to deliver information. Salvato says people use these gestures even when their hands cannot be seen, such as when speaking on the telephone.

Salvato’s research centres on university-aged adults learning a third or fourth language. After a decade of studying the use of gestures in communication, she says she cannot look at them in the same way.

“In the beginning, I used to look at gestures from a folkloristic or stereotypical perspective, but now I see it as a serious, complex matter that is intricate and mysterious,” she says. “For most of us, it is beyond our control, but our gestures define us culturally and help us fully express thought—this is intricate and mysterious.”