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Language Is More Than Speech: Implications for Foreign/Second Language Learning and Teaching

Gale Stam
PhD, Professor Emerita, National Louis University


When people speak, they move their hands and arms. These movements or gestures are as much a part of language as speech is (Kendon, 1980). Together speech and gesture develop from a growth point, a kernel or a seed of thinking, and form a single integrated dynamic system in which speech, gesture, and thought develop over time and influence each other (McNeill, 1992, 2005, 2012; Stam, 2018). Empirical research on speech and gesture has shown that gestures provide information about learning, teaching, and thinking that speech alone does not (e.g., Chase & Wittman, 2013; Holler & Wilkin, 2009; Iverson & Goldin-Meadow, 2005; McNeill & Duncan, 2000; Stam, 2006; Stam & Tellier, 2017; Tellier et al., 2021). This has implications for both foreign/second language learning and teaching.

In this talk, I will explain what gestures are and how they are relevant for foreign/second language learning and teaching. I will discuss what types of gestures can and cannot be taught. I will then provide a brief overview of studies that have investigated both foreign/second language learners’ and teachers’ gestures (for reviews, see Gullberg & McCafferty, 2008; Gullberg et al., 2008; Stam & McCafferty, 2008; Stam, 2013; Stam & Buescher, 2018; Stam & Tellier, 2022; Urbanski & Stam, 2023). I will present evidence from several studies (Stam, 2017; Stam & Tellier 2017; Stam et al., 2023; Tellier et al., 2021) that demonstrate how examining gestures allows us to see L2 speakers’ conceptualizations in thinking for speaking and how future language teachers vary their gestures depending on the proficiency of their interlocutor. I will emphasize why it is important to examine gestures in second/foreign language learning and teaching and what we miss when we do not.


Chase, E. A., & Wittman, M. C. (2013). Evidence of embodied cognition via speech and gesture complementarity. American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings, 1513, 94-97; doi: 10.1063/1.4789660.
Gullberg, M., & McCafferty, S. G. (2008). Introduction to gesture and SLA: Toward an integrated approach. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 30(2), 133-146.
Gullberg, M., de Bot, K., & Volterra, V. (2008). Gestures and some key issues in the study of language development. Gesture, 8(2), 149-179. doi: 10.1075/gest.8.2.03gul
Holler, J., & Wilkin, K. (2009). Communicating common ground: How mutually shared knowledge influences speech and gesture in a narrative task. Language and Cognitive Processes 24(2), 267-289.
Iverson, J. M. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Gesture paves the way for language development. Psychological Science, 16, 367-371.
Kendon, A. (1980). Gesticulation and speech: Two aspects of the process of utterance. In M. R. Key (Ed.), The relationship of verbal and nonverbal communication (pp. 207–227). Mouton Publishers.
McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
McNeill, D. (2005). Gesture and thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
McNeill, D. (2012). How language began: Gesture and speech in human evolution. Cambridge University Press.
McNeill, D., & Duncan, S. (2000). Growth points in thinking-for-speaking. In D. McNeill (Ed.), Language and gesture (141–161). Cambridge University Press.
Stam, G. (2006). Thinking for speaking about motion: L1 and L2 speech and gesture. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 44, 143–169.
Stam, G. (2013). Second language acquisition and gesture. In C. A. Chapelle (Ed.), The encyclopedia of applied linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd; doi: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal1049.
Stam, G. (2018). Gesture as a window onto conceptualization in second language acquisition: A Vygotskian perspective. In J. Lantolf, M. Poehner, & M. Swain (Eds.), Routledge handbook of sociocultural theory and second language development (pp. 165-177). Routledge.
Stam, G. (2017). Verb framed, satellite framed or in between? A L2 learner’s thinking for speaking in her L1 and L2 over 14 years. In I. Ibarretxe-Antuñano (Ed.), Motion and space across languages: theory and applications (pp. 329-365). John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Stam, G., & McCafferty, S. G. (2008). Gesture studies and second language acquisition: A review. In S. McCafferty & G. Stam (Eds.), Gesture: Second language acquisition and classroom research (pp. 3-24). Routledge.
Stam, G., & Buescher, K. (2018). Gesture research. In A. Phakiti, P. De Costa, L. Plonsky, & S. Starfield (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of applied linguistics research methodology (pp. 793-809). Palgrave Macmillan.
Stam, G., & Tellier, M. (2017). The sound of silence: The functions of gestures in pauses in native and non-native interaction. In R. B. Church, M. W. Alibali & S. D. Kelly (Eds.), Why gesture? How the hands function in speaking, thinking and communicating (pp. 353-377). John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Stam, G., & Tellier, M. (2022). Gesture helps second and foreign language learning and teaching. In A. Morgenstern & S. Goldin-Meadow (Eds.), Gesture in language: Development across the lifespan (pp. 336-363). De Gruyter Mouton; American Psychological Association.
Stam, G., Urbanski, K., Lantolf, J., & Smotrova, T. (2023). How concept-based language instruction works in teaching thinking for speaking in an L2. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching. doi.org/10.1515/iral-2022-0073
Tellier, M., Stam, G., & Ghio, A. (2021). Handling language: How future language teachers adapt their gestures to their interlocutor. Gesture, 20(1), 30-62.
International Joint Conference of APLX, ETRA40, and TESPA 2023