The role of gestures in cognitive and linguistic processes

When children, and adults, are asked to explain something they frequently gesture with their hands. These gestures are usually spontaneous and produced without conscious awareness.

Research is being carried out in the School of Psychology, University of Hertfordshire, focusing on what gestures can tell us about their thoughts.

We have also examined how both performing and observing gestures supports linguistic processes, including word finding.

  • The interpersonal and intrapersonal role of gestures
  • Children's representations: Gesture and cognitive change
  • Children’s language: Gestures for comprehension and production of speech

The interpersonal and intrapersonal role of gestures

Humans gesture even when their gestures can serve no communicative function (e.g., when the listener cannot see them).

Our research has explored the intrapersonal function of gestures, and the semantic content of the speech they accompany. We have proposed the semantic specificity hypothesis, whereby a gesture is integrally associated with the semantic properties of the word it accompanies.

Where those semantic properties include a high motor component the likelihood of a gesture being produced is increased, irrespective of communication demands.


Pine, K.J., Gurney, D. J., & Fletcher, B. C. (2010). The semantic specificity hypothesis: When gestures do not depend upon the presence of a listener. Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, 34(3), 169-178.

Children's representations: Gesture and cognitive change

An ESRC grant awarded to Prof Karen Pine set out to explore these issues with the following aims and outcomes:

Aim 1: To establish a reliable and valid coding scheme for interpreting children's gestures on the balance beam task and to investigate whether children's gestures can indicate knowledge which they cannot express in words and when they are ready to learn.

A valid and reliable coding scheme was established and used to code the gestures of 145 children completing the balance beam task. Children whose gestures did not match their speech learned more than children whose gestures and speech matched.

Additional microgenetic analyses of a further 21 children's gestures shed important light on the temporal and semantic relationship between gesture and speech. In short, gestures occur slightly before the word they convey and gestures can convey information that is different from the speech that accompanies them.

Children also sometimes display more advanced knowledge in their gestures than they do in their speech.

Aim 2: To compare the effects of allowing or prohibiting gestures on children's cognitive change. How will this affect their thinking, their language or even their learning ability? An empirical study initially found that restricting the gestures of 103 typically developing children did not have a significant effect on children's improvement on the balance beam task.

Additional testing was carried out with 45 children with Specific Language Impairment. Restricting the gestures of these children had a significant effect on their learning about the balance beam task. This is an important break-though in understanding the functional role of gestures since it showed that gestures facilitate conceptual change in children with language difficulties.


Pine, K. J., Lufkin, N., & Messer, D. J. (2004). More gestures than answers: Children learning about balance. Developmental Psychology, 40 (6) 1059-1067.  Download the More gestures than answers paper

Pine, K. J., Lufkin, N. & Messer, D.J. (2003). Exploring the relationship between children's speech and gestures on a balance task. Paper presented at the XIth European Conference on Developmental Psychology, Milan, Italy, August 2003.

Children's language: Gestures for comprehension and production of speech

Children gesture as they speak and these gestures provide psychologists with an important window into the thoughts of children. The way in which gestures help children to translate their thoughts into language is still under debate.

Explanations for the positive effects of gesturing range from helping thinking by supporting the packaging of ideas ready to be spoken, to helping the speaker find the right words whilst speaking.

We examined what happened to children’s speech when their ability to gesture was suppressed and also looked at how children’s gestures are helpful to them at times when finding the right word is difficult. Our findings suggest that gesture is important for both thinking and speaking helping children to find words and produce fluent speech.

Our research has also investigated whether gesture can enhance the pragmatic comprehension of language impaired children. This study (published in the journal Language and Cognitive Processes) found that gestures make a crucial contribution to an utterance’s meaning, helping children, especially those with a language impairment to understand speech that requires meaning to be inferred.


Kirk, E., Pine, K. J. & Ryder, N. (2011). I hear what you say but I see what you mean: The role of gestures in children’s pragmatic comprehension. Language and Cognitive Processes, 26, 2, 149 -170.

Pine, K.J, Bird, H. & Kirk, E. (2007). The effects of prohibiting gestures on children's lexical retrieval ability. Developmental Science, 10, 6, 747-754.

Pine, K.J., Lufkin, N., Kirk, E., & Messer, D. (2007). A microgenetic analysis of the relationship between speech and gesture in children: Evidence for semantic and temporal asynchrony. Language and Cognitive Processes, 22, 2, 234 – 246.

Kirk, E. & Pine, K.J. (2008). Putting speech in context with the hands: The role of gesture in SLI children's pragmatic comprehension. The XI International Congress for the Study of Child Language. Edinburgh, Scotland, July 2008.

Pine, K.J., & Kirk, E. (2007) Exploring the Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Role of Gesture in Communication. Poster presented at the International Society for Gesture Studies Third International Conference at Northwester University, Illinois, USA, June 2007.

Kirk, E., Pine, K.J. & Ryder, N. (2006).  Putting Speech in Context with the Hands: The contribution of gesture to the pragmatic comprehension of specifically language impaired and non-language impaired children. Paper presented at the British Psychological Society’s Developmental Section Annual Conference, Royal Holloway University, September, 2006.

Pine, K.J. & Kirk, E. (2005). Children’s Gestures tell us more than words can say. Poster presented at the International Society for Gesture Studies Second International Conference, Lyon, France, July 2005.