Research Shows Teachers Change Gestures with Non-Native Speakers

November 16, 2011

By Robert Schroeder

A teacher's mission, in many ways, is to wire their students' brains as critical thinkers and lifelong learners.

What if the way the adult brain is wired alters the way teachers work with second-language students?

New research from National Louis University in Chicago indicates the human brain is creating differences in the ways teachers interact with native and non-native speakers.  In districts with growing English as a Second Language (ESL) student populations, the findings could radically alter how teachers plan the delivery of content.

National Louis' Gale Stam, Ph.D., professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Marion Tellier with the Universite de Provence's CNRS Laboratoire Parole et Langage in Marseille, France, are in the midst of an experiment examining how French-speaking teacher candidates explain words to native and non-native French speakers.  Early results confirm their hypothesis that teachers treat each language group in distinct ways.

Stam and Tellier asked teacher candidates to choose 12 random words from a box and explain that word to groups of native and non-native speakers without using the word or any similar derivations of the world.  The listeners are charged with correctly guessing the word.  Analyzing video of these interactions, Stam and Tellier found the teacher candidates used more gestures, larger gestures and more gestures that represented the word in question, known as iconic gestures, when explaining to non-native speakers.

"When we speak to non-native speakers, we engage in something called foreigner talk," said Stam. "We speak more slowly, enunciate more, use more present tense, use simpler sentences and speak more loudly, so the larger gesture may in fact be a way of speaking more loudly with our hands."

When using their hands with non-native speakers, the future teachers refrained from gesturing in the more traditional center space, the area roughly in front of the chest, from the neck down to the waist.  Instead, they employed gestures in her periphery, the areas above the neck and below the waist.  The results indicate the teacher candidates are using gestures to fill in gaps that exist in spoken language communication.

In addition, teacher candidates used a gesture consisting of reaching out away from the body in the center space region, but further away from the body than most traditional gestures.  Stam and Tellier coined this gesture an extended arm in front gesture, one not previously recognized in gesture literature.  Like a larger gesture, the extended arm in front gesture makes the gesture larger and more visible, an equivalent of shouting in gesture form.

The impact on learners is not yet known; Stam says the perception of gestures changes based on the relative size of the gesture, and that change in perception could impact how learners intake spoken language.  Teacher candidates may have differing comprehension of what gestures are most effective to communicate with non-native speakers and may not understand how gestures in different dimensions impact a students' learning capacity.

Educators of future teachers cannot change the way the human brain is hard-wired, but Stam says these subconscious elements need further exploration. "We don't know from a teaching perspective that it definitely helps someone learn the language," Stam said. "The question is, do future teachers of a language have better intuition about what to do or not to do, and will this study show whether they do or do not?"

This adaptation of language is not uncommon.  In addition to foreigner talk, Stam cites a language adjustment called "motherese" as a comparison.  When interacting with small children, adults tend to speak more loudly and slower in a natural attempt to make speech understandable for youngsters.  The effectiveness of foreigner talk, mother aids, and teacher gestures has not been thoroughly explored in research.

Stam and Tellier's experiment will play a significant role in uncovering effective teacher traits.  As their research continues, the two will be examining video of teachers before their formal education and after, searching for changes in gestures.  Their results will provide some of the first guidelines on how teacher candidates should be trained in the use of gestures and their impact on learners.

Stam hopes to expand her research to the United States, examining ESL teachers interacting with English-speaking and non-native English speakers.

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