Gesture in foreigner talk

Thomas W Adams, University of Pennsylvania


Previous research has established that native speakers (NSs) modify their speech when addressing non-native speakers (NNSs). This phenomenon, known as foreigner talk, has been shown to assist comprehension, which in turn provides a condition that is conducive to second language acquisition (SLA). The present study investigated whether NSs also modify their use of hand gestures when addressing NNSs, and whether they do so in ways that are functionally similar to foreigner talk. Five types of hand gestures were examined. Theoretical argument and empirical studies suggest that the deployment of pantomimics, iconics, and deictics can function to assist NNSs in their comprehension of the message content or of the speech that accompanies gestures to a greater extent than can the use of metaphorics and emblems. It thus was hypothesized that NSs would use more pantomimics, iconics, and deictics when addressing NNSs than when addressing other NSs, and that they would use fewer metaphorics and emblems. The study also examined NNSs' attitudes concerning NSs' modified use of hand gestures. Using a within-subjects design with repeated measures, 20 NSs narrated a story at different times to an NS and to an NNS. NNSs then responded to a questionnaire that indirectly measured whether they viewed the NSs' use of hand gestures negatively. Data consisted of nearly 2,400 hand gestures, with deictics and iconics accounting for fully 91% of the total number of gestures. Data were subjected to a Matched Pairs t Test ($\alpha$ =.05, one-tailed) using as the unit of analysis a ratio of gesture frequency per total number of words uttered. Results showed very strong support for the prediction concerning deictics ($p<.01$) and a highly strong trend for iconics. Statistical interpretation for pantomimics, metaphorics, and emblems was difficult owing to their small sample size. However, a qualitative analysis of the data produced evidence that the deployment of all five types of gestures might have functioned to promote comprehension of the message content or of the speech that accompanies gestures, or both. Results of the questionnaires produced no evidence that NNSs' viewed NSs' modified use of hand gestures negatively.

Subject Area

Language arts|Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Cultural anthropology

Recommended Citation

Adams, Thomas W, "Gesture in foreigner talk" (1998). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9829850.