Enhancing Communication in Aphasia through Gesture

If you watch people communicating one thing quickly becomes obvious. Human beings like to gesture. Most of us gesture while we talk.

There will be times, also, when we use gestures instead of speech, e.g. to ask for a drink in a noisy bar.

What is the purpose of these gestures?

One is obviously communicative, i.e. they help the listener understand what is being said. In line with this, we know that people pay attention to gestures during conversation, and that gestures influence how people interpret speech.

However, this does not explain why people use gestures even when they cannot be seen. For example, people on the phone often gesture as much as if they were talking face to face. This had led to a different suggestion. It could be that gestures help us to compose language. In other words, gestures may help us to clarify our ideas and access words.

When people have aphasia their speech and language therapists often encourage them to use gesture more. This may help in a number of ways:

  • Gestures may stand in for lost words. So if the person cannot say "BMW" they might be able to make a driving gesture instead.

  • Gestures may help to clarify speech. If the person says "VNW" instead of "BMW" they may not be understood. However, if they produce a driving gesture at the same time their meaning may become clear.

  • Finally, gestures may help to cue speech, or help the person to recover lost words.

    A new project funded by the Stroke Association (Grant Number: TSA 2006/04) is investigating these possibilities.

    The researcher on the project is Anna Caute, who is a speech and language therapist, and the grant holders are: Wendy Best, Naomi Cocks, Madeline Cruice, Jane Marshall and Tim Pring.

    The researchers are from City University and UCL.

    The project will involve 20 people with severe aphasia who have very limited speech.

    Each person will receive 15 therapy sessions, aiming to improve gesture and word production.

    We will use tests before and after therapy to find out whether therapy has been effective, e.g. to see if it helps the person to produce more words or gestures. Participants who do not improve will be offered a second programme of therapy.

    This will again focus on gesture, and will additionally involve a family member or friend.

    If you want to know more about the project, or would like to be involved, please contact

    Anna Caute, or Jane Marshall

    Or you can write to us at:
    The Department of Language and Communication Science
    City University
    London EC1V OHB

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