Chinese Corner

Move It or Lose It3 min read

The link between physical gesture and language – by Eveline Chao

Once, some Chinese guy lounging on a freight trike asked me if I was a hooker.

He whispered the question as I walked past in a Beijing alley. It was the middle of the day, and I was wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers – not the most standard gear for advertising sex work.  

When I recounted the incident to friends later (secretly trying to feel out whether I had missed some sort of memo about gray New Balance sneakers becoming the internationally recognized symbol for a woman of the night), one offered an interesting theory. “You know,” he said, “I can usually tell Chinese-Americans from Chinese on the street. Something about the way they walk and carry themselves. Maybe he picked up that there was something ‘off’ about you, but misread what it was.”

I’m not sure that explains what happened, but it did get me thinking about body language, movement, and how much it’s tied to language and culture. I, too, can usually spot the Chinese-American among a sea of Chinese. Everyone is different, but to me, it’s something in the posture. Their shoulders are more squared, and they take longer, looser strides. They look – well, American.

Every language has a body language. In my own life, I’ve noticed that in a roomful of Chinese colleagues, I’m often the person gesticulating the most, making big, conspicuous movements as I speak. Hanging out with my Taiwanese cousins, I find myself getting self-conscious as I realize that I throw my head back and laugh (read: bellow) really (really) loudly. My cousins, by contrast, make a noise I’d call more of a titter, while covering their mouths with their hands. On a “waving your hands around while talking” scale, with Italians at one extreme and Scandinavians at the other, Americans probably fall somewhere in the middle, and Chinese closer to Scandinavia.

Talking (and waving) about this stuff, it’s hard to know when I’ve wandered into the realm of stereotypes. But certainly, gesture and movement are intimately bound up with language. According to one study, when you read action verbs like “jump” or “run,” blood rushes to the motor cortex, the part of your brain that controls movement. Blind people gesture when they speak, even when speaking to other blind people. Speech therapists use finger painting and other fine-motor activities to encourage children with speech delays to start talking.  

Gesturing can be extra handy when it comes to second languages. It not only helps convey extra information (for those moments when you blank on the Mandarin word for “upstairs”); it may even help you access certain words more easily (i.e. pointing upwards will help you spit out lóushàng.)  Understanding this link can be helpful when learning a new language. People learn second languages more easily when words are paired with movements, according to several studies. (A teacher friend of mine has her students recite Latin phrases to dance moves.) And adopting a culture’s body language is part of learning the language. That’s why expats in India find themselves wobbling their heads as they speak. Or try saying gōngxǐ, Mandarin for “congratulations.” If you’ve learned it right, it’s nearly impossible not to lean forward and clasp your hands in front of your chest, elbows akimbo, as the word comes out.

You may feel a little ridiculous doing it. But just be glad you aren’t getting propositioned by passing pedicab drivers. ∎

A version of this essay was first published in That’s Beijing in 2011, and is revised and republished here with permission.