More folks are walking around talking when no one is present. I watched a gentleman waiting in line for a flight. His earpiece and dangling microphone cord with a microphone near his mouth revealed that he was speaking to someone on his smartphone. And while he was speaking Spanish, a language I do not speak, I understood much of what he was saying. His gestures gave away his enthusiasm. He exuberantly pointed to himself, outward to the listener, and aside when referring to others. His hands and fingers swirled as he made his points in spite of the fact that the person he was taking to could not see him.
He was one of those speakers where we might ask the question: “Could you talk if you had to sit on your hands?”
We all, more or less, converse with our hands and our eyes and our body posture. We understand people not only by what they say, but by how they say it.
These innate or unschooled gestures are “homesigns” as described by Professor Susan Goldin-Meadow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. While working on her doctorate, she saw how a deaf child who had not learned sign language nevertheless used richly meaningful gestures that were natural and understandable. Goldin-Meadow is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. AAAS recently profiled her work that showed that deaf children naturally use these gestures even when they have never experienced any linguistic model.
Homesign gestures are nouns and verbs and possess the “universal properties of language.” Children use these gestures to try to communicate a word before they have mastered the ability to say the word. And after we master our language, we continue to supplement what we say with gestures.
What I was observing in the expressive man at the airport line was “co-speech gesturing” that he naturally provided even though his intended listener could not appreciate this added visual richness.
In a recent teaching evaluation, one of my students wrote: “When you are excited, we are excited.” This is the richness of face-to-face classroom communication. The excitement my students feel is transferred more by my gestures and body language than just by the words I say. And to really perceive the subtlety of these gestures, you have to be in the presence of the speaker.
But media dampens the perception, much as you feel the environment while riding on a motorcycle more then in a car with the windows rolled up.
Or look at the recent Veteran’s Day parades. Or compare sitting at a ball game amidst the enthusiastic cheering crowd versus watching on ESPN where the view is actually better but the atmosphere is not as electric. It is the high resolution gestures that we can read by “being there” that provides greater understanding and empathy and exultation.
Lack of resolution in co-speech gesturing is but one of many deficiencies of so-called online learning. This medium, whether it was the televised instruction fad of the 1960s or the hyped anytime-anywhere convenience “courses” of today fails to provide these subtle gestures that make speech a rich communication. We recognize our barren words in our e-mail and instant messaging and we attach inadequate smiley-face emoticons.
Our cell phone and computer screen images likewise fall flat. The next time you are in a meeting where the superiority of the online media is touted, just ask: “Then why are we sitting here?” The answer is clear to all present. It is not merely the logic in the situation, but also because of the richness of gestures that we used before we ever spoke. They will nod in recognition. It is the richness in gestures that makes face-to-face meetings so much more effective.
To get carried away in learning, students need to get off of the media and join the excitement of really being there. If you agree, you don’t have to say anything. Just give me a “thumbs up” or a “high five.” Yeah!