ESL teachers need to see the importance of gestures in the overall communication process, as gestures and speech coexist in time, meaning and function to such a degree that they can be reasonably regarded as different sides of a single underlying mental process. Instructors should be aware of common gestures and be able to incorporate them into teaching, particularly at the basic levels.

Gestures and body language are also a part of culture. Sociolinguistic competence has been added to communicative competence as a key element in successful language learning. Intercultural competence allows people to broaden their worldview.

However, cultural differences involving gestures can impede communication.

"In addition to overcoming language barriers, ESL teachers also help bridge cultural gaps that may cause miscommunication between students and teachers. Some students may come from countries where they are expected to come to the teacher’s desk to ask a question instead of raising their hand. Others may come from cultures where touching that may be considered inappropriate in America is commonplace," wrote Jim Cook.

There are specific gestures that go with the country’s L1. Sometimes they may be used in more than one country and sometimes not.

"No matter what country you are from, and whatever language is spoken in your country, there are unique physical gestures that are familiar to almost everyone in the country. Although some gestures cross borders, others do not. In fact, simple hand gestures may have very different meanings in different countries," said Debra Garcia.

Implications for language acquisition

Researchers have confirmed that comprehension involves areas of the brain that control movement in addition to the language centers.

"Researchers…have experimentally confirmed the hypothesis, whereby comprehension of a word's meaning involves not only the 'classic' language brain centers but also the cortical regions responsible for the control of body muscles, such as hand movements. The resulting brain representations are, therefore, distributed across a network of locations involving both areas specialized for language processing and those responsible for the control of the associated action," according to a release from Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics.

In that study, a series of experiments showed that specialized parts of the brain interact with other areas:

"These new findings suggest that language-specialized brain areas work in constant interaction with other areas known to support other cognitive processes, such as perception and action. The resulting distributed meaning representations act as dynamic cortical networks rather than a series of specialized modules as suggested by traditional theories."

The result is that gestures are important for successful communication. There is a connection between areas of the brain that control language and areas that control movement.

Besides language itself, accompaniments of speech are important to success in communication. Among those accompaniments are gestures and the distances observed between speakers.


The use of body movements and position makes up the linguistics field of kinesics.

For a fascinating study in kinesics, you may spend a few minutes watching an Italian gesticulate to an unknown to an unseen conversationalist on a telephone (287).

Actually, one can observe almost any phone conversation and see the speakers make movements, particular if the person is excited or angry.

Gestures vary from country to country. Notice the following from Debra Garcia:

"Awhile back, I was on a train with an American friend and an Iranian friend. The train was nearly full and we had difficulty finding three seats together. My American friend was at the other end of the train. My Iranian friend used a hand gesture to tell her to come to us. My American friend smiled and waved at her. I then gestured to my American friend and she came to us right away. We were both using “come here” gestures, but my gesture worked for Americans and hers worked for Iranians."

So, one should not assume that gestures are universal:

"The side-to-side headshake is not a universal way to say ‘no,’ nor does the ‘OK’ sign with the thumb to forefinger have the same meaning in every culture," according to the 2013 book, "Teaching Adults: An ESL Resource Book," by ProLiteracy.

Learners and teachers should be aware that gestures are tied into the L1 culture, but they can be learned along with the language.

An essential feature of culture is that it is learned along with language. Cultural concepts are transmitted by language, and they mediate between the speakers of the language and their environment. People sharing the same cultural framework organize their experiences in the same way.

Hints for teachers

Gestures can be included in the ESL lessons since they are part of the communication process.

Teachers can demonstrate the gestures that are part of the host country, and students can show what gestures they use to convey the same meaning, avoiding any that may be obscene like the OK sign in American English that does not mean OK in the Middle East! "The main point is that gestures are a part of effective cultural communication," wrote Garcia.

While gestures may not need a lot of time in the in the ESL classroom, I believe that they are a part of an ESL teacher’s responsibility to bring to the attention of ESL learners. One way to do this in an ESL classroom is to ask students to show, for example, how they would ask someone to come to them using physical gestures.

Various hand gestures and body movements can be a topic of discussion in a higher level ESL class. Such discussions will help students understand the paralinguistic clues that accompany these movements and help them avoid miscommunication.

"Ask students to demonstrate and describe the meaning of various hand gestures. You'll be amazed at how many there are. Discuss how facial expressions and other body movements influence the meaning of a hand gesture. What do hand gestures mean in different cultures?" John Suler, Ph.D., a clinical psychology professor, wrote.

Verbs that describe motion differ across languages.

"… when speakers of different languages describe the same motion event, speakers of verb framed languages (V-languages) such as Spanish, Greek and Japanese prefer to describe the path information of the movement in the main verb, whereas speakers of satellite-framed languages (S-languages) like English, German and Chinese prefer to indicate the manner information of the movement in the main verb," said Shu-Ling Wu in a 2016 article in The Modern Language Journal.

The author encourages ESL instructors to actively use motion verbs in L2 to help overcome any interference. Teachers can design learning activities that have students actively use motion language in meaningful activities.

Learners who are "hands-on" or kinesthetic can benefit from these suggested activities:

  • Teaching with objects
  • Doing role plays
  • Making physical movements that reinforce learning
  • Taking breaks when they can move around

Knowing the students’ learning styles can help teachers present the lesson material.

If you know a student’s learning style, you can present information in the way the student learns best-not just in your personally preferred learning style.

Gestures can be incorporated into an overall lesson plan. Here are some suggested questions from The Internet TESL Journal:

  • What are some gestures you know?
  • What are some good gestures in your country?
  • What are some insulting gestures in your country?
  • Can you think of some gestures that have different meanings in different countries?
  • Has your teacher ever used a hand and/or facial gesture that was o.k. in the teacher's country but an insult in your country? If so, did you tell the teacher so it would not happen again?