Do I gesticulate more in one language than in others?

italian-hand-gestureItalians? There is an endless list of stereotypes about us, but you already knew that. We are supposed to constantly say “mamma”, “pizza”, “spaghetti”, words ending in -i, but what we are mostly famous for is for our body language or, more precisely, our beloved hands we apparently cannot stop moving!

For once, I must admit the stereotype is true. We actually move a lot our hands just to add some emphasis when speaking and, most of times, we don’t even realise we are doing it. Plus, as you may know, Italians have developed a gestural language.

You inevitably learn it as a kid, when you’d like to communicate with your friend on the other side of the classrom and don’t want to run the risk of sending a message on a piece of paper and be caught by the teacher. So you end up moving hands and, believe me, you can say a lot with hands in Italy.

italian gestures

Having said that, I have a personal theory: since every language has its own body language, multilingual speakers should be able, up to certain extent, to communicate with both the verbal and non-verbal language they are using. Working as a translator and interpreter, I speak four languages: Italian, Spanish, English and German. During the years, people watching me switching from one language to another have made me realise more and more that my body language changes according to language I am speaking. What varies a lot, in particular, is how and how much I move my hands. Apparently, the language in which I move my hands the most is Italian (indeed, not a big surprise!), followed by Spanish, whereas far fewer movements appear in English and they are minimal in German.

I was also provided proof of such differences. When I was working in Germany, I attended a workshop on “translational hermeneutics” (i.e. the study of the principles and procedures underlying the activity of interpretation). In a short practical session, I was asked to simulate a job interview in German and I was the interviewee. Since the simulation was tailor-made for me, the interview was for an in-house translation and interpreting job and, consequently, I was also asked to speak in Italian, Spanish and English. The entire interview was video-recorded and when I was later shown it, I couldn’t believe how differently I spoke my four languages, from a body-language point of view. My posture was totally rigid in German and sat up perfectly straight (not very natural for me), my hands looked stuck on the table with a superglue and I barely moved them. In English I kept that postured, but with a bit more flexibility and I  gesticulated a little. When I started speaking Spanish my postured was far more relaxed, my facial expression more friendly and I started moving my hands more. I looked far more “alive”. When switching to Italian, it was the same, plus the hand movement process was even more intense.

Summing up, it is already well-known that body language varies significantly from language to language, but I guess it’s not so obvious is whether a single person can change his/her body language according to the language being spoken. In my case, I personally interpret it as a good sign: I think I have somehow partially interiorised the diffent body language associated to each of my four working languages and behave (even unaware) accordingly. Now, I’d really love to know about you. Does it happen to you as well? Would you like to share any experiences of yours? It would be very interesting! Thank you in advance for your comment and have a great day!

Alessandra 🙂

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