Body-oriented gestures as a practitioner's window into interpreted communication

Jennifer Gerwing, Shuangyu Li

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11 Citations (Scopus)
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With increasing global migration, health care providers and patients may lack a shared language. Interpreters help to secure understanding. Doctors and patients cannot evaluate how the interpreter translates their utterances; however, they can see hand movements, which can provide a window into the interpretation process. While research on natural language use has acknowledged the semiotic contribution of co-speech gestures (i.e., spontaneous hand and arm movements that are tightly synchronized with speech), their role in interpreted interactions is unstudied. We aimed to reveal whether gestures could shed light on the interpreting process and to develop a systematic methodology for investigating gesture-use in interpreted encounters. Using data from authentic, interpreted clinical interactions, we identified and analyzed gestures referring to the body (i.e., body-oriented gestures). Data were 76 min of video-recorded doctor-patient consultations at two UK inner-city general practices in 2009. Using microanalysis of face-to-face dialogue, we revealed how participants used body-oriented gestures and how interpreters transmitted them. Participants used 264 body-oriented gestures (doctors = 113, patients = 54, interpreters = 97). Gestures served an important semiotic function: On average, 70% of the doctors' and patients' gestures provided information not conveyed in speech. When interpreters repeated the primary participants’ body-oriented gestures, they were highly likely to accompany the gesture with speech that retained the overall utterance meaning. Conversely, when interpreters did not repeat the gesture, their speech tended to lack that information as well. A qualitative investigation into the local effect of gesture transmission suggested a means for quality control: visible discrepancies in interpretation generated opportunities to check understanding. The findings suggest that clinical communication training could benefit from including skills to understand and attend to gestures. The analysis developed here provides a promising schema and method for future research informing clinical guidelines and training.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-180
Number of pages10
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Early online date26 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019


  • Clinical communication
  • Gesture study
  • Interactional analysis
  • Interpreter-mediated consultation
  • Medical education
  • United Kingdom

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