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Gesture, sign, and language: The coming of age of sign language and gesture studies

  • Susan Goldin-Meadow (a1) and Diane Brentari (a2)

How does sign language compare with gesture, on the one hand, and spoken language on the other? Sign was once viewed as nothing more than a system of pictorial gestures without linguistic structure. More recently, researchers have argued that sign is no different from spoken language, with all of the same linguistic structures. The pendulum is currently swinging back toward the view that sign is gestural, or at least has gestural components. The goal of this review is to elucidate the relationships among sign language, gesture, and spoken language. We do so by taking a close look not only at how sign has been studied over the past 50 years, but also at how the spontaneous gestures that accompany speech have been studied. We conclude that signers gesture just as speakers do. Both produce imagistic gestures along with more categorical signs or words. Because at present it is difficult to tell where sign stops and gesture begins, we suggest that sign should not be compared with speech alone but should be compared with speech-plus-gesture. Although it might be easier (and, in some cases, preferable) to blur the distinction between sign and gesture, we argue that distinguishing between sign (or speech) and gesture is essential to predict certain types of learning and allows us to understand the conditions under which gesture takes on properties of sign, and speech takes on properties of gesture. We end by calling for new technology that may help us better calibrate the borders between sign and gesture.

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