Hand gesture and speech: random occurrences, or systematic patterns?

March 15, 2022

A lively crowd of close to 40 students and faculty from various departments came together for the second installment of the Social Data Analytics (SDA) 2022 Speaker Series.  

Given by linguist, Dr. Jennifer Hinnell, the talk was titled “What’s in the hands? Analyzing speech and the body signal in spontaneous discourse”. Dr Hinnell is a Killam postdoctoral research fellow in Linguistics at UBC, and a graduate from the MA program in Linguistics at SFU.  

The next time you’re watching a live lecture, you’ll notice that speakers move their hands quite often as they communicate information. These motions are commonplace: when we speak to each other, we do much more than just move our mouths. We move our bodies—typically the hands and upper body.  

Commonplace as they are, we don’t consciously think to execute these patterns of movement. No one thinks to themselves ‘so when I say “and then the car came through the window!”, I need to immediately form a fist with my right hand, and move it quickly from left to right as I finish my utterance’. So maybe these unconsciously produced bodily movements happen at random, and aren’t very important for understanding the content of what is being said.  

But being unconsciously produced need not imply a lack of structure, and it very well might turn out that recognition of these bodily gestures are crucial for understanding what people mean to say when they speak. These were some of the points covered in Hinnell’s talk, where a key question under investigation concerned whether or not there were any strong correlations between certain meanings and certain gestures, and whether those associations (if present) were important for the communication of meaning.  

It turns out, as Hinnell observed, that there are strong associations between certain patterns of hand movements and the expression of certain pieces of linguistic information (specifically concerning verb-aspect, or properties of events). A further result of Hinnell’s investigation was that for certain instances of speech, the speaker’s gestures play a crucial role in communicating meaning: so much so that if one did not pay attention to the gesture at all, then one would have missed what the speaker meant to say.  

Although the linguistic research was fascinating, a point that Hinnell emphasized was the importance of the methodology she employed in her research, which drew heavily upon rich datasets that allowed for the extraction of a myriad of important information. Specifically, Hinnell relied upon a massive database of video footage and text-data of people having spontaneous, non-scripted conversations on news stations in North America, which allowed her to precisely observe crucial patterns between certain utterances and bodily gestures.  

As Hinnell noted, these kinds of rich datasets were not available to the linguists of, say, 20 years ago. But as time goes on, such data becomes more widely available, and even more complex—potentially yielding large swaths of information from which to carry out linguistic research. Hinnell’s work is an excellent example of how modern research methods capitalizing on this proliferation of available data can lead to fascinating results concerning the relationship between speech and bodily gesture.  

However, the appreciation of these datasets yields much more than particular results concerning patterns between particular gestures and particular acts of speech. Hinnell was keen to emphasize the foundational implications of her work for linguistics as a whole. What do these results mean for our understanding of the fundamental components of communication? Are languages themselves importantly associated with patterns of bodily gesture? How ‘multi-modal’ is language, really?  

Before the availability of these growing datasets, these questions would be hard to answer with any degree of rigour or sophistication. But as Hinnell’s talk demonstrates, we can make steps towards answering these questions—it just involves an appreciation of new methodologies revolving around the analysis of large bodies of data.   

Hinnell’s talk is an example of the kind of cutting-edge research emphasized by SFU’s SDA program, which launched in 2020. The underlying idea is that new methodologies responsive to the proliferation of data yield fascinating new results, and take steps towards challenging or improving upon existing paradigms of thought.  

There’s a phrase for the sort of thing that the SDA program aims to do by developing and appreciating these new methodologies in the social sciences: ‘making progress’.  

The third installment of the SDA’s 2022 Speaker Series, which features a talk by Communications Professor Stuart Soroka from the University of California, Los Angeles. Titled “The Increasing Viability of Good News”, this talk has implications for communication theory, political communication and political psychology.  

If the first two talks given so far by Dr. Baylis and Dr. Hinnell are any indication of the caliber of research being presented at the SDA’s 2022 Speaker Series, then we can be sure that Soroka’s talk will also be interesting and pathbreaking.  

Soroka’s talk will take place on March 16th at 2pm on SFU’s Burnaby campus. Register here.  


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