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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

What is the connection between movement and language?

Speaking requires planning and executing rapid sequences of movements. Several muscle systems are involved in the production of speech sounds. Not only the tongue, lips and jaw, but also the larynx and respiration muscles work together in coordination when we speak. As for any other movement, motor planning and sensorimotor control are essential for speaking. 

In children, a tight relation between fine motor skills and language proficiency has been demonstrated. That is why speech therapists encourage sensory rich activities like finger painting, water or sand play, and manipulations involving small objects (coloring, buttoning, etc.) in children with speech delays. Such activities help to form new neural connections that are necessary for planning movement sequences and controlling fine-grain movements. For the same reason hand exercises can be beneficial as a part of complex therapy for speech and language recovery after a stroke or brain damage, in cases when language problems are caused by impaired articulation or motor control. 


Another connection between movement and language lies in the domain of co-speech gestures. People often gesture when they speak and understanding the gestures is important in order to grasp the speaker’s intended message. Gesture may become essential to communicate at all in situations where verbal language use is constrained (for example in a noisy environment, or when speakers of different languages communicate). Usually people are remarkably fluent in extracting intended meaning from one’s hands and body movement. Interestingly, recent research demonstrates that similar brain areas are involved in constructing the meaning from linguistic and gestural input. Finally, the sign languages that deaf individuals use to communicate show that the language itself can be manifested in body movements, e.g. hands, arms, and facial expressions.

 Written by Irina Simanova & David Peeters

Further reading:  

Why a Long Island Speech Therapist Incorporates Movement and Sensory Activities into Speech Therapy Sessions (link)

McNeill, David (2012). How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution. New York, USA; United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. (link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos