More than just hand-waving: Gestures and meaning in multilingual language use

For the 2022 Einar Haugen Lecture, Marianne Gullberg will be giving a lecture on multilingual speakers' gestures and what they mean.

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Photo: Oda Hveem / UiO

The lecture is open to everyone and will be held in English. It will also be possible to follow the lecture via Zoom:

Please note that this event will be photographed.


Multilingual speakers often seem to use words differently from monolinguals. This talk demonstrates that multilingual speakers’ gestures open a new window on to what they mean to say.

Studies show that speakers who know, learn and use more than one language often seem to use words differently from monolinguals, and mean different things by them. These differences are often revealed when words are used in the ‘wrong’ context, such as when borrow is used instead of lend in English (e.g. “I borrowed the book to her” instead of “I lent the book to her”). However, a focus on errors obscures the more interesting question of what multilingual speakers actually mean with given linguistic forms. To truly understand the nature of multilingualism, we need a tool that can shed light on what meanings speakers intend. I will show that the gestures speakers produce when they talk is such a tool. I first demonstrate that differences in word meaning across languages are reflected in systematically different gestures. I then show how the gestures of second language speakers and bilinguals differ from those of monolinguals and what they reveal about meaning. Finally, I discuss the implications of these findings for theories of language and multilingualism. Gesture analysis provides information about shifts in meaning, crosslinguistic influence, and convergence between languages – information that cannot be gleaned from speech alone.

About the speaker

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Marianne Gullberg (Photo: Nadia Frantsen / UiO)

Marianne Gullberg is a Professor of Psycholinguistics and Chair/Director of Lund University Humanities Lab. 

She studies acquisition and processing in L2 and multilingual speakers, targeting semantics, discourse, and gesture production, and comprehension. She holds a Wallenberg Scholar grant, Embodied bilingualism, and lead the group Language Acquisition, Multilingualism, and Teaching (LAMINATE) w. J. Granfeldt.

She headed The Dynamics of Multilingual Processing at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics 2003-2009 (w. P. Indefrey), and co-founded the Nijmegen Gesture Centre (w. A. Özyürek), the first of its kind. She was area editor of Cognitive SLA in the Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics (2012 w. J. Williams), Associate ed. of Language Learning (2009-2014). She is now Editor of Language, Interaction and Acquisition, Assoc. Ed. of Frontiers in Psychology, and Info ed. of Gesture. She was Vice-President of the European Second Language Association 2000-2007. She received its Distinguished Scholar Award in 2019.

The Einar Haugen Lecture

Black-and-white photo of Einar Haugen, an older white man with dark-rimmed glasses
The annual Einar Haugen Lecture pays tribute to this eminent Norwegian-American scholar and celebrates linguistic diversity. Photo: Unknown/NTB Scanpix

On September 26, the European Day of Languages, MultiLing honors Einar Haugen with the annual Einar Haugen Lecture. This year's lecture will be held on September 26.

Haugen was a Norwegian-American linguist and a Professor at Harvard University in the 1960-70s.

Haugen’s many influential works contributed to the then emerging field of sociolinguistics for which he is credited for having had an important impact, particularly in the domain of language policy. His pioneering work The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior (1953) is a landmark study in the field of bilingualism.


Published Sep. 5, 2022 5:11 PM - Last modified Sep. 26, 2022 9:38 AM