Love. Fury. Passion. Italians are well known for expressing themselves through body language and hand gestures, as if the feelings bubbling up inside them can’t be expressed in mere words, but require an accusing finger, an appeal to the heavens, a shake of the fist. Scandinavians, on the other hand, are not.
According to traditional stereotypes, people from northern Europe are more reasoning and reserved. It’s not that they don’t feel extreme emotions — just that they are less inclined to express them physically.
Yes, these are cultural cliches, although few people would dispute that Italians talk with their hands to express themselves. But what if there is a biological imperative behind it? What if gestures actually help our brain develop? What if there is a link between how we use our hands and how we solve problems?
Southern Passion Versus Northern Reserve
Let’s address a few stereotypes first. The idea that southern countries are hotter, both weather-wise and temperamentally, is rarely questioned, but a difficult premise to evaluate. If we accept that it has some truth, then should we conclude that the Germanic languages are more cerebral, and the Romance languages more, er, romantic? Is it colder in Norway so people stick their hands in their pockets? Does the grammatical complexity of German and its siblings make for a more analytical view of the world?
It’s the classic chicken-and-egg question of language and culture and there is no simple answer.
However, what we are learning is that the relationship between gesture and language is critical to the development of the human brain.
Something Fishy Happening
A study last year found that there was a clear connection between the vocalization circuitry and pectoral-gestural circuitry in a certain part of a fish’s brain — basically a link between the sounds they make and how they use their fins.
Andrew Bass, who conducted the study at Cornell University, believes it is all part of the “even larger story of language evolution.”
Over in Barcelona at the Pompeu Fabra University, two researchers were studying how babies gesticulate, between the end of the “babbling” period and when they start producing words. Their research, published in February 2014, claims that infants coordinate speech and gesture even before they can speak.
“The study of language and human communication cannot be carried out only with an analysis of speech,” Núria Esteve Gibert, one of the researchers, explained to SINC.
The most common gesture the babies made? Pointing.
Researchers from San Francisco State took it to another level and looked at the link between gestures and problem-solving. They found that children who used gestures more often in everyday life were better at carrying out certain tasks.
This applies at any age, argues psychologist Patricia Miller, one of the authors of the study: “Even we adults sometimes gesture when we’re trying to organize our tax receipts or our closets. When our minds are overflowing we let our hands take on some of the cognitive load.”
Towards A Theory Of ‘Embodied’ Learning
This has important implications for how we might learn languages.
It supports the idea that learning is an ‘embodied’ activity, something that involves a complex interaction of brain and body. Gestures are not solely located in the body any more than thoughts only occur in the brain.
(If you want to test this idea, just think of someone you really love or hate and observe what your body does.)
This view of language learning gave rise to Total Physical Response, a way of teaching language through movement.
It’s not just for kids either. Adult learners often do something like this subconsciously when learning a new language; our memory likes physical associations. Some people like to use hand movements to practice tones in languages like Vietnamese or Mandarin.
Admittedly, this doesn’t really explain why Italians like using their hands when they talk. But maybe, just maybe, they’ve known for a long time what science is only beginning to understand: that expressing yourself with your hands is a great way to help your brain out.
This article was originally published on May 7, 2014. It has been updated.