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Rhythmic gestures help to better understand and remember a language

For both a first and a second language, and both for adults and children, according to two recently published studies led by Pilar Prieto, coordinator of the Prosodic Studies Group and ICREA researcher with the Department of Translation and Language Sciences, with the participation of her team and researchers from the UOC and from the UAB.



Producing rhythmic gestures, or hand and arm movements that accompany prominent positions in speech, works for both a first and a second language, and both in adults and in children, according to studies led by  Pilar Prieto, coordinator of the  Prosodic Studies Group and ICREA researcher with the Department of Translation and Language Sciences (DTCL), with the participation of her team and researchers from the UOC and from the UAB.

While previous studies had already shown that non-verbal or gestural communication promotes the learning of words in a second language, until now little was known about the potential benefits of gesticulating with the hands rhythmically while speaking. While the positive effects of iconic gesture on the recall and comprehension of words was a well-established question, very little was known about the benefits of rhythmic gestures (rhythmic movements of the hands/arms produced along with prominent prosody), or about the significance of prosodic prominence independently or in combination with gestural prominence in the understanding of a first or a second language.

An initial study, published in the online edition of Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, with the participation of researchers from the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and recently read as part of the thesis by Olga Kushch, investigates the contribution of prosodic prominence (accent and intonation) and visual prominence (rhythmic gestures, rhythmic hand and arm movements) in the learning of vocabulary in a second language. To do so, 96 native speakers of Catalan origin were asked to learn 16 Russian words in four possible conditions under study: with the presence or absence of prosodic prominence in speech, combined with the presence or absence of physical prominence.

The results of this study, which involved adults, indicate that the strongest effect on the learning of new words in a second language is achieved when rhythmic gestures are produced, that is to say, when prosodic and gestural prominence are combined. The least effective condition was that which contained gestural information without prosodic prominence.

Another study recently published in an advanced online edition in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, led by Pilar Prieto in collaboration with pre-doctoral students Judith-Llanes Coromina, Ingrid Vilà-Giménez, Olga Kushch and researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Joan Borràs-Comes, focuses on the evaluation of the effect of gestural prominence in the recall of words and in children’s understanding of information.

For this study, two experiments were designed in order to investigate, on the one hand, if rhythmic gestures combined with prosodic information helped the children to remember words and the information related to these words in a speech addressing children (Experiment 1), and, on the other, if the presence of gestures helped the children to better understand a narrative discourse (Experiment 2).

Experiment 1 involved the participation of 51 four-year-old children who were exposed to a total of three short stories presented in three possible conditions; that is to say, with prominence in both speech and gesture, with prominence only in speech, and with the absence of prominent speech. The results showed that the children remembered more words when they were exposed to prominence both in speech and in gesture, and they were also more likely to remember the information related to these words when they were associated with rhythmic gestures. In Experiment 2, 55 children of 5 and 6 years of age were exposed to six stories, on the one hand, with prosodic prominence without rhythmic gestures; and, on the other hand, with prosodic prominence and with rhythmic gestures. The results obtained through a comprehension exercise showed that the children understood better the stories told with rhythmic gestures.

The combination of these two studies brings clear evidence that, in the first place, naturally produced rhythmic gestures, that is to say, accompanied by prominent prosody, enhance the learning of second language vocabulary. Secondly, with regard to the experiments involving preschool children, it can be concluded that, at younger ages, rhythmic gestures help not only to remember the details of speech, but also to understand it.

Reference work:

Kushch, Olga, Igualada, Alfonso, & Prieto, Pilar. (2018). “Prominence in speech and gesture favor second language novel word learning”. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience. Published in the online advanced edition here:

Llanes-Coromina, Judith, Vilà-Giménez, Ingrid, Kushch, Olga, Borràs-Comes, Joan & Prieto, Pilar. (2018), “Beat gestures help prechoolers recall and comprehend discourse information” published in advance online in the Journal of Experimental Child PsychologyVolume 172, August 2018, pp. 168-188.



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