When words fail, gestures can help get the message across – especially for people who have a language disorder. An international research team has now shown that listeners attend to the gestures of people with aphasia more often and for much longer than previously thought. This has implications for the use of gestures in speech therapy.
People who suffer from an acquired language disorder due to a brain injury — for example, after a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or brain tumor — often have difficulty communicating with others. Previous research on aphasia indicates that these patients often try to express their needs using hand gestures. Previously, conversation partners were assumed to pay relatively little attention to these non-verbal forms of communication – but this assumption was based on research involving participants without language disorders.
Communication with gestures
A new study from the University of Zurich, carried out together with researchers from the Netherlands and Japan, looked at whether gestures receive more attention if verbal communication is impeded by aphasia. The researchers showed videos of healthy volunteers in which people with and without speech disorders described an accident and a shopping experience. As the participants watched the video clips, their eye movements were recorded.
Changes in focus of attention
“Our results show that when people have very severe speech difficulties and produce less informative speech, their conversation partner is more likely to pay attention to their hand movements and look longer at their gestures,” says Basil Preisig of Department of Comparative Language Sciences. at UZH. In people who do not have limitations in verbal production, hand gestures receive less attention. Thus, it appears that listeners shift their attention when the speaker has a speech problem and focus more on the speaker’s non-verbal information provided through gestures. “For people with aphasia, it may be worth using more gestures to be better understood by the other person,” says Preisig.
Using gestures as a specific tool in therapy
The present study not only illustrates the importance of gestures in communication, but also reinforces their relevance in speech rehabilitation. “Individuals with aphasia should be encouraged in therapy to use all available forms of communication. This includes increasing their use of gestures. In addition, their family and friends need to learn about hand gestures to improve communication,” Preisig believes.
Materials provided by University of Zurich. Note: Content can be edited for style and duration.