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Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings): Do Actions Speak Louder Than Words?

9 minutes

(Describer) In an animation, two people carry a sofa, then drop it. Two legs on one side of it break. The people walk away. Title: Scientists and Engineers on Sofas and Other Furnishings. A chain and hook from the first E in “Engineers” lifts the fallen side of the sofa.

[beep, beep]

(Describer) A man locks his car in a parking garage while a woman speaks at a podium. The man hurries away.

(male) Today I get to meet Doctor Susan Goldin-Meadow. She studies how gesture changes us and can help us learn. I'm excited, but late due to D.C. area traffic,

(Describer) He stands at elevators.

which was compounded by getting the car late. I'm hoping she's going to be waiting for me. Let's find out.

(Describer) He goes into an open elevator. She waits in the empty room where she spoke and checks her watch.

(Describer) As he watches the floor numbers change, she leaves the room with a clock reading 2:46.

Come on. Okay.

(Describer) The elevator doors open and he walks out. At the Front Page Restaurant and Grill, he steps inside.

(Describer) Goldin-Meadow raises her hand from a booth. He waves in reply and approaches with a clipboard. Professional Talker Rob Margetta:

Hello, so sorry I'm late. No problem. Thank you for waiting for me. How'd the lecture go? It went well. Good. I'm so interested in your work because it's so-- relates so much--

(Describer) A waitress arrives.

Oh, thank you. You're welcome.

(Describer) She sets down two cups of coffee, and leaves.

Excellent. It relates so well to some fundamental human behavior. I'm gesturing right now.

(Describer) He holds out his hands.

We all do it.

(Describer) He moves his cup away from the edge of the table.

How did you become interested in this? How did this become your field of specialty? I actually became interested in gesture from another project that I was doing. I, in my PhD dissertation, looked at how children create language-- create a gesture language. I started looking at children who were not exposed to any usable linguistic input-- deaf children of hearing parents. They're so deaf, they can't acquire speech, and they were not being taught sign language. I was interested in whether they could come up with any aspects of language. I started to look at how they would fashion language with their hands. You find in your research that this is a universal human trait. Blind people and deaf people gesture, right? It's a little different, though. In blind people, what we're looking at is the gestures that naturally co-occur with speech. But in the deaf people, they had no speech or language. They were not being trained in any way in a linguistic system or exposed in any way to a linguistic system. So they invented this system--children-- It's not "they." It's each deaf child in a home of hearing people. They used their hands to communicate. Those gestures, to me, look really different from gestures we produce when we spontaneously talk. Those gestures look much more like language. I actually studied the gestures we produce when we talk as a control for those other gestures. Those, to me, are serving the function of language. A real linguistic system with all the structure. Gestures we produce when we talk are an adjunct to that system, but an important part of it.

(Describer) Nearby, a framed newspaper has the headline “Cal-lossal”. Rob rests his chin on his fist.

I'm trying to think hard and gesture a little more. You kept saying we--we gesture, it's how we communicate. Is this something uniquely human? Something that makes us human? Well, certainly, it is uniquely human in the sense that nobody gestures like we do. First of all, other species don't talk. Gesture is very tied-- But they move. They do move, and there are species that gesture in certain ways. For example, a chimp might hold out his little shoulder because he wants it scratched. That's sort of a gesture. It's indicating that I want a scratch. But it's very tied to action. And it's not very representational. What we have is an advantage in that we use our gestures to convey information. He's giving you his shoulder, but not pointing to it. He doesn't point to it. A human child would definitely point there. One thing I find impressive about these deaf children is that--they're called "home signers" because they invent their own languages at home-- is that they just use this to schmooze, their body to say, "Oh, look, that's up there, and it's big."

(Describer) She points.

Whereas, chimpanzees just don't do that. They don't find it worthy-- newsworthy to convey this information to another. We'll use our hands if we can't use our mouths.

(Describer) The waitress returns.

The chimp doesn't compliment the cantaloupe I gave him? It's not that he's being rude? Right. Can I get you anything? We're great.

(Describer) She leaves again.

The work, to me, is so interesting. I'm interested to learn what you come up with next. The part that I am excited about right now is the fact that gesture looks like it's so good for getting us to transfer knowledge to a task, to a new problem. "5 + 4 + 3 equals blank + 3" are problems we look at. That's hard for a child because there's this blank and then a plus three. We want children to solve those problems and to understand the relationship of mathematical equivalents-- two sides to the problem. They need to be equal. We want them to get that idea. If you use gesture in teaching them, they're better at getting that idea. Not just solving the problem, but better at getting that idea. And retaining it better. Show me the problem you're talking about.

(Describer) He gives her his clipboard and a marker.

It's a simple problem, but it's hard for 4th and 5th graders in America.

(Describer) She writes the problem.

"5 + 4 +3 equals blank + 3."

(Describer) The blank is an underscore.

It's hard for children because they never see this "3" on the other side. What they tend to think is, "I should add up all of these numbers and put that number in the blank." So you come up with 12. Or "I just add up all the numbers and put that in the blank." I think they don't understand what the equal sign is. That's extremely important for understanding math. How would you gesture through this problem? How have you found kids gesture through? If a child is going to add up just the numbers on this side of the problem, they'd point at the 5 and 4 and 3 and then they'd put the number in the blank. Maybe they'd point at the 5 and 4 and 3 and 3 and put the number in the blank. If they know how to solve the problem, what they might do is, "I want to make one side

(Describer) She runs her fingers under the first three numbers.

equal to the other side." Or teach us that, "You can add the 5 and 4 and 3, "then you can take away the other 3 and come up with the answer." Is that sweeping gesture at the end-- It's a little "take away" gesture because that's an add/subtract strategy. I just realized that I am late for an appointment. Okay. Thank you, this has been great. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

(Describer) They shake hands, and he leaves. Title: Scientists and Engineers on Sofas and Other Furnishings.

Hey, who's paying for this coffee?

(Describer) The title and the sofa it's on are pushed aside by the logo for the National Science Foundation, which is a globe with a gold fence-like design around it. Funding to purchase and make this educational program accessible was provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Contact the Department of Education by telephone at 1-800-USA-LEARN, or online at

Funding to purchase and make this educational production accessible was provided by the U.S. Department of Education:

PH: 1-800-USA-LEARN (V) or WEB:

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Why do we gesture? What role do simple hand movements play in some of the most fundamental aspects of language? Susan Goldin-Meadow has dedicated her career to asking, and answering, those big questions. In her lab at the University of Chicago, she studies gesture’s role in cognition, development, and the acquisition of verbal language. Part of the Scientists and Engineers On Sofas Series.

Media Details

Runtime: 9 minutes

Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 1
8 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 2
9 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 3
6 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 4
6 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 5
7 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Scientists & Engineers On Sofas (And Other Furnishings)
Episode 6
8 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12