Hearing gesture: How our hands help us think.

Hearing gesture: How our hands help us think. By Susan Goldin-Meadow. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. Pp. 304. ISBN 0674018370. $16.95.

Reviewed by Sandra Cristina Becker, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais

Susan Goldin-Meadow has established a remarkable track record of expressive publishing, investigating language development, language structure, and, above all, the relationship between language and gesture. Her work invariably stands out due to its exploratory character. As with every book produced by Goldin-Meadow, the reader of Hearing gesture will definitely profit from its didactic, step-by-step, and user-friendly style. She provides ample supporting material for her claims; illustrative and carefully explanatory vignettes, graphs, and schemas that a book on gesture ought to have; examples of numerous studies carried out on gestures; a well-designed methodological approach; and even better theorizing.

The volume is divided into four parts. The first part introduces the notion of gesture and the language it conveys. The author does not neglect building a picture of how integrated these two systems are. She also delineates distinct categories of gestures and offers some glimpses of semantic and pragmatic characteristics of nonverbal communication. Especially revealing are the studies on mismatching described in Ch. 4. As pointed out, mismatch may signal the readiness to learn and profit from new input. Understanding the path to learning seems to depend on investigating the relation between speech and gesture.

Do gestures communicate? Is substantive information conveyed by gestures? Can toddlers and slightly older children make pragmatic inferences from nonverbal interactions? These and more intriguing questions are addressed in the second part of this volume. Particularly welcome are Chs. 7 and 8 covering in clear language how much everyone learns through gestures. The influence and impact on how students interpret their teacher’s explanations and, conversely, on how teachers understand their student’s ideas are explored deeply. A number of studies on the influence of gestures on communication in different areas, namely therapy sessions and forensic interviews, illustrate the assumptions raised and highlight the importance of tracking gestures and speech in those domains.

Gestures have communicative and cognitive functions. In G’s own words, ‘The mechanism by which we produce gestures, however, need not involve communication and the listener’ (136). Based on this assumption, Part 3 explores the force that drives us to gesture. G describes experiments with congenitally blind individuals, and mentions various studies that have manipulated the presence of a listener. To support the fact that gesturing reduces demands on a speaker’s cognitive effort, a considerable number of investigations are depicted in detail.

The last chapters focus mainly on interactions that rely purely on nonverbal language, when gestures assume all the burden of communication. A broad view of how deaf communities explore the iconic function of hand gestures is offered, together with interesting remarks on mouth movements produced by signers. Particularly absorbing are the reports on language development and specific language impairment (SLI), not to mention the accounts of situations when talk is restricted by the social world, as for religious observance, mourning, or in the case of indigenous communities that did not share a spoken language.

I see the detailed description of experiments and studies as a plus, revealing the thoughtfulness that has gone into this volume. I appraise this book as a welcome step-up to the investigations of human cognition, language, and thought. This is without doubt an invaluable addition to the reference library of everyone, expert or lay, interested in exploring human cognition. I recommend it without any reservations to those engaged in the study of gestural connection to language and thought.