Emoji aren’t ruining language: they’re a natural substitute for gesture 🔥🔥🔥

Gestures and emoji don’t break down into smaller parts, nor do they easily combine into larger words or sentences. Shutterstock
Lauren Gawne, La Trobe University

We’re much more likely to be hanging out on social media than at the watercooler these days. But just because we’re no longer face-to-face when we chat, doesn’t mean our communication is completely disembodied.

Over the last three decades, psychologists, linguists, and anthropologists, along with researchers from other traditions, have come together to understand how people gesture, and the relationship between gesture and speech.

The field of gesture studies has demonstrated that there are several different categories of gesture, and each of them has a different relationship to the words that we say them with. In a paper I co-authored with my colleague Gretchen McCulloch, we demonstrate that the same is true of emoji. The way we use emoji in our digital messages is similar to the way we use gestures when we talk.


Read more: What your emojis say about you


What gestures and emoji have in common

We can break speech down into its component parts: sentences are made of words, words are made of morphemes, and morphemes are made of sounds.

Signed languages have the same features of grammar as spoken languages, but with hand shapes instead of sounds. They have some advantages in complex expressions that spoken languages don’t have, but there are gestures as well as grammatical features when people sign.

By contrast, gestures and emoji don’t break down into smaller parts. Nor do they easily combine into larger words or sentences (unless we’re using a clunky version of the grammar of our language).

While there are preferences, there is nothing “grammatical” about using 😂 instead of 😹. Rather, what is most important is context. 🐶 could be a reference to your own dog, a good dog you saw while out for a walk, or a sign of your fondness for puppers over kitties.

There are some gestures that can have a full meaning even in the absence of speech, including the thumbs up 👍, the OK sign 👌 and good luck 🤞. Gestures like these are known as emblems, some of which are found in the emoji palette. Some object emoji have also developed emblematic meanings, such as the peach 🍑, which is most typically used non-illustratively to represent a butt.

Many gestures and emoji do not have these specific meanings. So, let’s take a look at different ways emoji are used to communicate with reference to a common framework used to categorise gestures.

Illustrative and metaphoric emoji

Illustrative gestures model an object by indicating a property of its shape, use, or movement, such as the classic “the fish was THIS big” gesture. Similarly, we often use emoji to illustrate the nature of a message. When you wish someone a happy birthday you might use a variety of emoji, such as the cake with candles 🎂, slice of cake 🍰, balloon 🎈, and wrapped gift 🎁.

It’s not grammatically correct to say “birthday happy”, but there’s no “correct” sequence of emoji, just as there is no one correct way to gesture your description of the fish you caught.

We also have metaphoric uses of gesture and emoji. Unlike a “big fish”, a “big idea” doesn’t have a physical size, but we might gesture that it does. Similarly, our analysis showed that people typically use the “top” emoji 🔝 to mean something is good.


Read more: Emoji are becoming more inclusive, but not necessarily more representative


Beat gestures are used for emphasis

Another common type of gesture used to draw attention is a beat gesture, distinguished by a repetitive “beat” pattern. Some uses of emoji have a direct parallel to beat gestures. For example, using the double clap 👏 for emphasis, which has its origins in African American English.

The emphatic nature of beat gestures helps explain something about common strings of emoji. When we looked at sequences of emoji the most common patterns are pure repetition, such as two tears of joy emoji 😂😂, or partial repetition such as two heart eyes and blowing a kiss/heart 😍😍😘. Repetition for emphasis is rare (but possible) with words, but very common for gesture and emoji.

Along with these categories, we also looked at pointing and illocutionary gestures and emoji, which help show your intentions behind what you’re saying – whether that’s amused 😂 or ambivalent 🙃.


Read more: Understanding the emoji of solidarity


Emoji have limitations that gestures don’t

There are obviously some differences between online and physical chat. Gestures and speech are closely synchronised in a way emoji and text can’t be. Also, the scope of possibilities with gesture are limited only to what the hands and body can do, while emoji use is limited to the (currently) 2,823 symbols encoded by Unicode.

Despite these differences, people still use the resources available to them online to do what they’ve been doing in face-to-face conversations for millennia. Bringing together research on gesture and internet linguistics, we argue there are far more similarities between emoji and gesture than there are between emoji and grammar.

Instead of worrying that emoji might be replacing competent language use, we can celebrate the fact that emoji are creating a richer form of online communication that returns the features of gesture to language.The Conversation

Lauren Gawne, David Myers Research Fellow, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Introducing the Language Marathon from Parleremo…

Do you ‘hop’ between languages without building any real consistency to your study routines?

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Parleremo, meaning ‘we’ll talk‘ in Italian is a free language learning platform with over 1200+ members. It has resources for 35+ languages (and growing). Originally created in 2008 it reopened in August 2019. With some BIG changes, including the brand new (small fee) challenge to help ‘level up‘ language learning!

Practice writing by creating journal articles in your target language.

Online language challenges are becoming very popular for independent language learners as they encourage motivation and community support.

These challenges do have excellent methods to combine accountability and motivation to greatly improve language skills using social media.

Recently prices have soared for online challenges with the average cost now reaching triple numbers for a 30-90 day challenge!

However, Parleremo Language Marathon is slightly different as it is hosted on our very own secure platform with access to many resources, tools and a supportive community to help keep you on track of your language learning.

Practice pronunciation by making recordings in your target language.

Motivation is important, but discipline is required in language learning to make real progress. It’s the discipline that drives you forward even through those difficult moments, inturn this fuels motivation and the reward pathways in the brain.”

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Founder of Language Learners Journal.
Co-Creator of the Parleremo Language Marathon.

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The Basics of What We Understand About Brain Injuries and Language

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body, and it has many parts that are responsible for a variety of everyday activities. One of the activities that we do every day is communicate, which involves several parts of the brain.

Damage to certain parts of the brain can change your language capabilities substantially. In some instances, an injured person might have difficulties speaking, while others might have difficulties understanding spoken or written language. Severe brain damage can lead to a complete loss of all language capacities. The difficulties a person encounters depends on the region or the brain that is damaged. Here are a few ways that a brain injury can affect language processing.

How Language Regions of the Brain Can Be Damaged

Areas of the brain that process language could incur damage based from a variety of situations. One typical reason the brain might become damaged is epilepsy, which causes recurrent seizures. It’s also possible for a part of the brain to be damaged during surgery, because of diseases such as brain cancer, or trauma resulting from a physical injury.

Parts of the Brain Associated with Language Processing

Several parts of the brain are associated with language processing, including the Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area.  Other parts of the brain, such as the angular gyrus, insular cortex, and basal ganglia, are involved in language processing as well. According to neuroscience researchers, “Regions in your frontal, temporal and parietal lobes formulate what you want to say and the motor cortex, in your frontal lobe, enables you to speak the words.” Damage to any one of these areas can result in decreased language abilities.

Damage to the Wernicke and Broca Areas of the Brain

When the Wernicke’s area is damaged, a person might be able to speak but not able to understand language. Carl Wernicke first learned this when a patient exhibited this symptom in 1867. A few years earlier, in 1861, Pierre Paul Broca observed a patient who was able to understand language but not produce it. He then found out in a postmortem examination that there was a lesion in what is now known as the Broca’s area.

According to personal injury lawyers, “As one of the most complex organs in the human body, the brain can dramatically alter your daily life when it’s damaged. For instance, if Wernicke’s area of the brain suffers damage, you could no longer be able to understand or comprehend written or spoken words. If Broca’s area is affected, you might not be able to form words to speak.”

Other Types of Language Deficits

The Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area are areas of the brain that are commonly referenced when talking about language loss, but there are other ways that a person can experience a language deficit. A deficit in language is called aphasia, and there are two types of aphasia: receptive and expressive. Receptive aphasia refers to a person’s ability to understand the meaning of language, and expressive aphasia refers to a person’s ability to express language.

Receptive and Expressive Aphasias

An example of receptive aphasia is a person who is able to express language but has difficulty understanding it. A person with receptive aphasia might still retain the ability to speak, but the words they are speaking might not have any meaning.

With an expressive aphasia, a person will be unable to make meaningful language, or their language will be impaired. They will, however, be able to understand language, and they will likely be aware of their impaired deficits in their ability to produce meaningful language.

Do People With Language Deficits Due to Brain Injury Ever Make Progress?

People who suffer a brain injury can make progress, and it’s sometimes over the course of several years or even decades. Those who experience brain injury might have difficulties expressing themselves, but it might get better over time. There are also things you can do to help, such as slowing the conversation or using simplified language to communicate.
Interested in learning more about how language learning affects the brain? Check out the Language Learners Journal for more information and free resources, or sign up for one of our online courses.