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Turn-timing and the body: Gesture speeds up conversation


Holler,  Judith
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
INTERACT, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;


Kendrick,  Kobin H.
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
INTERACT, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Holler, J., & Kendrick, K. H. (2016). Turn-timing and the body: Gesture speeds up conversation. Talk presented at the 7th Conference of the International Society for Gesture Studies (ISGS7). Paris, France. 2016-07-18 - 2016-07-22.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002B-A0C7-A
Conversation is the core niche of human multi-modal language use and it is characterized by a system of taking turns. This organization poses a particular psycholinguistic challenge for its participants: considering the gap between two speaking turns averages around just 200 ms (Stivers et al., 2009) but the production of single word utterances takes a minimum of 600 ms alone (Indefrey & Levelt, 2004), language production and comprehension must largely run in parallel; while listening to an on-going turn, a next speaker has to predict the upcoming content and end of that turn to start preparing their own and launch it on time (Levinson, 2013). Recently, research has begun to investigate the cognitive processes underpinning turn-taking (see Holler et al., 2015 for an overview), but this research has focused on the spoken modality. The present study investigates the role co-speech gestures may play in this process. We analysed a corpus of 7 casual face-to-face conversations between English speakers for all question-response sequences (N=281), the gestures that accompanied the identified set of questions, and the timing of these gestures with respect to the speaking turns they accompanied. Moreover, we measured the length of all inter-turn gaps in our set. Our main research question was whether the length of the gap between turns varied systematically as a consequence of questions being accompanied by gesture. Our results revealed that this is indeed the case: Questions with a gestural component were responded to significantly faster than questions without a gestural component. This finding holds when we consider head and hand gestures separately, when we control for points of possible completion in the verbal utterance prior to turn end, and when we control for complexity associated with question type. Furthermore, our findings revealed that within the group of questions accompanied by gestures, those questions whose gestures retracted prior to turn end were responded to faster than questions whose gestures retracted following turn end. This study provides evidence that gestures accompanying spoken questions in conversation facilitate the coordination of turns. While experimental studies have demonstrated beneficial effects of gestures on language processing, this is the first evidence that gestures may benefit processing even in the rich, cognitively challenging context of conversational interaction. That is, gestures appear to play an important psycholinguistic function during immersed, in situ language processing. Experimental work is currently exploring at which level (semantic, pragmatic, perceptual) the facilitative effects we found are operating. The findings not only suggest psycholinguistic processing benefits but also expand on previous turn-taking models that restrict the function of gesture to turn-yielding/-keeping cues (Duncan, 1972) as well as on turn-taking models focusing primarily on the verbal modality (Sacks et al., 1974).