Linguistic differences and non-verbal behavior: the mysterious case of gestures

On a recent trip to Rome, I was reminded of the fact that it's commonly believed, at least by native speakers of English, that people who speak Latin-based languages seem to gesticulate more frequently and more vigorously than we do.

It wasn't that I saw lots of locals waiving their hands about, but I was struck by what a lot of writing there seemed to be on the road signs on the way into town from the airport.

Then, on entering the lift in the hotel, I was struck again by the length of the warning notice - so much so that I actually took a photograph of it (above).

The big difference between Italian and English isn't so much the number of words as the fact that the Italian version has twice as many syllables as the English translation:



The point about syllables is that each one is a separate beat, so that the more beats there are in a sentence, the longer it will take to say it aloud.

This reminded me of some questions that originally occurred to me about thirty years ago as I was reading a notice about how to get into the lifeboats on a ferry between England and France - where two lines of English were translated into three lines of French.
  1. Are Latin languages inherently more 'long-winded' than English?
  2. If so, does this create problems for turn-taking that hadn't been noticed by research originally based on tape recordings of conversations between native speakers of English?
  3. If so, could a greater reliance on gestures be a practical solution to any such problems?
Combating the threat of an approaching bowl of potatoes
The reason why these questions occurred to me then was that I'd just returned from one of the first international conferences on conversation analysis at Boston University, where I'd taken part in a data session analysing a videotape of a dinner party at which a bowl of potatoes was being passed along the row of three diners on one side of the table.

A woman sitting opposite the man furthest away from the potatoes was telling him a story. When the potatoes reached the person next to him, she leant towards him and carried on with her tale. Then, a split second before the bowl reached the man being told the story, the speaker's hands suddenly came up from the table and she began to accompany her story with increasingly vigorous gestures.

The more the sequence was replayed, the more it looked as though her movements were precisely timed and choreographed with the movement of the bowl towards her listener. Leaning towards him came across as the first step in her bid to retain his undivided attention in the face of the growing threat of the approaching potatoes.

Her gestures, beginning as they did just before the bowl arrived in his hands, looked like an increasingly determined, if not desperate, effort to keep him listening.

So what?
If one of the things we do with gestures is to combat threats to the attentiveness of our listeners, this raises the question of whether speakers of Latin languages like Italian, Spanish and French have more reason to use them than speakers of a predominantly Germanic-Nordic language like English?

The number of beats/syllables needed to say the words in the Italian fire warning pictured above (or the lifeboat instructions on the cross-Channel ferry) points to a reason why the problem of holding attention may be greater in some languages than others - which would give speakers of those languages more of an incentive to use gestures.

Given that conversation depends on turn-taking, the longer a turn takes, the more of a challenge it is for listeners to remain attentive until the previous speaker has finished.

We know from some of the earliest work on turn-taking by the late Harvey Sacks that, if we're going to tell a story, we have to alert people to the fact in advance - so that they can prepare themselves for having to do more listening than usual.

So, if the production of sentences in language (A) requires more beats/syllables than the production of sentences in language (B), holding the attention of listeners will be inherently more of a problem for speakers of (A) than it is for speakers of (B).

And, if gestures help to hold attention, you would therefore expect speakers of language (A) to gesticulate more than speakers of language (B).

Culture, language or climate?
The standard way of explaining why Latin speakers are alleged to gesticulate more than English speakers is on the basis of ill-defined cultural generalisations along the lines that the Italians, French and Spanish are more 'emotional' and 'expressive' than people in Britain, North America and Australasia.

But there's an empirical vagueness to such claims that makes me rather more convinced by the idea that it has more to do with the way turn-taking is affected by inherent differences in the length of sentences in different languages (as measured by number of beats/syllables per sentence).

Or at least I was convinced until I mentioned the theory at another conference, where a Swedish delegate came up with a rather different, but nonetheless plausible, explanation:

"It's warm around the Mediterranean, but we native speakers of Swedish have to keep our hands in our pockets because it's too cold to waive them around all the time."


  1. Interesting article. So if a listener is very attentive and focused on the speaker, would you expect to observe the number of gestures from the speaker to decrease or be 'muted'?

  2. Bruce - glad you found it interesting. The short answer to your question is almost certainly "yes'.

    If the woman at the dinner table had been sitting closer to the diner getting stuck into the potatoes, she would probably have knocked him out!

  3. As an Italian native speaker I would agree with Max that it takes more to say less.
    To hold attention, as well as richness in gesture, Italian and other Latin speakers make much more use of vocal variation than English speakers. So, Italians in discussion always seem to be arguing - they are not, but they sometimes turn up the volumes to keep listeners engaged.
    The language is described as more melodic - it isn't. It's just the way it's spoken by Italians, who vary pitch and tempo - again to keep interest.
    Finally, and this is more subjective, it seems to me that Italians use more metaphors or stories in words. A lot of Italian nouns are quite descriptive.
    All together, a more long-winded language, but a delivery lacking the stiff upper lip.

  4. Sal -fascinated to hear the view of someone who speaks both Italian and Engilsh, especially as your comments on volume, pitch and tempo probably also derive, like more vigorous gestures, from the greater difficulty in retaining attentiveness in Latin-based languages.

  5. Very mixed feelings and reactions to your post, Max.
    First one was "malaise", uneasyness whenever I read generalizations regarding cultural differences.
    I am French,with a very traditional cartesian education on one hand,and a mediteranean influence on the other.
    I also have some strong germanic influence (with an Alsacian grand father whowas an administrator of the
    French Colonies in Morrocco!).
    As I studied both in Cambridge and in the United States, I tend to express myself professionaly in English.

    Second reaction was amusement and curiosity.
    I can't help , given my cultural background and cosmopolitan upbringing,being fascinated by intercultural communication.
    Moreover, Max uses irresistible humour in his analysis and the potatoes scene would make a great funny scene in a movie!
    One more word to correct the foreigners stereotype about French gesticulating.
    You have to bear in mind some very clear distinctions between regions of France.
    Except for the southern part, French people are not using their hands as expansively as it's believed.
    Actually, in traditional French education, children are being taught to sit straight, behave themselves, not talk too much, listen and be rather "restrained".
    Compared with the British boarding school education, this may appear a very subtle distinction, however...
    When you present yourself for oral exams, you're suposed to be expressing yourself with concisiveness, clarity and use moderate gestures.
    "Ce qui se conçoit bien s'ennonce clairement et les mots pour le dire viennent aisémment " Nicolas Boileau.
    French place high value on articulateness.
    We do use our hands to emphasize what is being said, but much less than the stereotyped belief.

    Third reaction: is it language, culture or climate?
    Although I would not place linguistic at the source of all differences, it's without doubt one of the elements of differenciation.
    What came first?
    Why do we use longer words,phrases?
    Do "latin" speakers need to compensate their listeners lack of attention by hypnotising them with gestures, like a magician?
    And don't underestimate the power of facial expressions, as well, and getting closer in physical contact.

    Thank you max for triggering such a debate, especially since my area of focus is shifting to online presentations.
    As a native latin speaker, my inability to make gestures online will have to find other ways of expression!!!!
    (Hence the length of this comment and the use of !!!!!!!!!)
    Joyeux Noel (same length as Merry Christmas!)

  6. I was told that the expansion of the British Empire led us Brits to calm the natural tendency to wave our arms about because that set us apart from the colonised natives and allowed us extra Authority.

    In other words, British gesticulatory habits were as flamboyant as everyone else's until we felt it necessary to exercise control.

    Stillness works.

  7. A great observation Max, and an interesting theory which makes a great deal of potential sense at first glance. I like it.

    I worked for almost a decade in Italy and now spend time also in South America. Climate has always played a part, but I think both the syllabic and phonic nature of the language will for sure be producing a unique gestural signature due to the neural requirement for this language and vice-versa (see theories on embodied cognition) that could account for some cultural movement in a way that until now I had not thought.

    Nice provocation Max. Now you’ve got me thinking.

    Mark Bowden


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