Gesture as a Communication Strategy in Second Language Discourse: A Study of Learners of French and Swedish

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Gesture is always mentioned in descriptions of compensatory behaviour in second language discourse, yet it has never been adequately integrated into any theory of Communication Strategies (CSs). This study suggests a method for achieving such an integration. By combining a cognitive theory of speech-associated gestures with a process-oriented framework for CSs, gesture and speech can be seen as reflections of similar underlying processes with different output modes. This approach allows oral and gestural CSs to be classified and analysed within a unified framework. The respective fields are presented in introductory surveys, and a review is provided of studies dealing specifically with compensatory gesture–in aphasia as well as in first and second language acquisition.

The experimental part of this work consists of two studies. The production study examines the gestures exploited strategically by Swedish learners of French and French learners of Swedish. The subjects retold a cartoon story in their foreign language to native speakers in conversational narratives. To enable comparisons between learners and proficiency conditions both at individual and group level, subjects performed the task in both their first and their second language. The results show that, contrary to expectations in both fields, strategic gestures do not replace speech, but complement it. Moreover, although strategic gestures are used to solve lexical problems by depicting referential features, most learner gestures instead serve either to maintain visual co-reference at discourse level, or to provide metalinguistic comments on the communicative act itself. These latter functions have hitherto been ignored in CS research. Both similarities and differences can be found between oral and gestural CSs regarding the effect of proficiency, culture, task, and success. The influence of individual communicative style and strategic communicative competence is also discussed. Finally, native listeners’ gestural behaviour is shown to be related to the co-operative effort invested by them to ensure continued interaction, which in turn depends on the proficiency levels of the non-native narrators.

The evaluation study investigates native speakers’ assessments of subjects’ gestures, and the effect of gestures on evaluations of proficiency. Native speakers rank all subjects as showing normal or reduced gesture rates and ranges–irrespective of proficiency condition. The influence of gestures on proficiency assessments is modest, but tends to be positive. The results concerning the effectiveness of gestural strategies are inconclusive, however. When exposed to auditory learner data only, listeners believe gestures would improve comprehension, but when learner gestures can be seen, they are not regarded as helpful. This study stresses the need to further examine the effect of strategic behaviour on assessments, and the perception of gestures in interaction.

An integrated theory of Communication Strategies has to consider that gestures operate in two ways: as local measures of communicative ‘first-aid’, and as global communication enhancement for speakers and listeners alike. A probabilistic framework is outlined, where variability in performance as well as psycholinguistic and interactional aspects of gesture use are taken into account.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • General Linguistics
  • Håkansson, Gisela, Supervisor
Award date1998 Feb 14
Place of PublicationLund
ISBN (Print)91-7966-508-X
Publication statusPublished - 1998

Bibliographical note

Defence details

Date: 1998-02-14
Time: 10:15
Place: Samarkand, Akademiska Föreningen

External reviewer(s)

Name: Engberg-Pedersen, Elisabeth
Title: Dr
Affiliation: Dept of Linguistics, Copenhagen University


The information about affiliations in this record was updated in December 2015.
The record was previously connected to the following departments: Linguistics and Phonetics (015010003)

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • General Language Studies and Linguistics

Free keywords

  • second language acquisition
  • communication strategies
  • applied linguistics
  • gestures
  • Lingvistik
  • Linguistics
  • French
  • Swedish


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