When speech stops, gesture stops: Evidence from crosslinguistic and developmental comparisons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


There is plenty of evidence that speech and gesture form a tightly integrated system, as reflected in parallelisms in language production, comprehension, and development (Kendon, 2004; McNeill, 1992). Yet, it is a common assumption that speakers use gestures to compensate for their expressive difficulties, a notion found in developmental studies of both first and second language acquisition, and in some theoretical proposals concerning the gesture-speech relationship. If gestures are compensatory, they should mainly occur in disfluent stretches of speech. However, the evidence is sparse and conflicting. This study tests the putative compensatory role of gestures by comparing the gestural behaviour in fluent vs. disfluent stretches of narratives by competent speakers in two languages (Dutch and Italian), and by language learners (children and adult L2 learners). The results reveal that (1) in all groups speakers overwhelmingly produce gestures during fluent speech and only rarely during disfluencies. However, L2 learners are significantly more likely to gesture in disfluency than the other groups; (2) in all groups any gestures performed during disfluencies tend to be suspended; (3) in all groups the rare gestures completed in disfluencies have both referential and pragmatic functions. Overall, the data strongly suggest that when speech stops, so does gesture. The findings constitute an important challenge to both gesture and language acquisition theories assuming a mainly (lexical) compensatory role for (referential) gestures. Instead, the results provide strong support for the notion that speech and gestures form an integrated system.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • General Language Studies and Linguistics


  • gesture, speech production, language development, second language acquision, crossmodal coordination, child language acquisition
Original languageEnglish
Article number879
Number of pages17
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Jun 1
Publication categoryResearch

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