What happens when you come to a new place, and you don't know the local language? Your first attempt may be to try to speak all other languages you may know. If you are lucky enough, the person in front of you may respond in any of these languages. But sometimes, your efforts to communicate using languages may end in vain. Then you try to use something you believe is a universal human language: signs and gestures. You try to use some signs, gestures, and even mimicking sounds to communicate your idea. It may seem that these signs are universal, but sometimes they aren't.
My first personal experience related to hand gestures was during traveling. I had expected the hand gestures to display the count of objects to be universal. For example, I point the index and middle fingers to specify the count for two. However, I noticed that the person used the thumb and index finger to do the same. I used the index finger to specify that I need one object. Whereas, I observed that the person before me used the thumb. Even the simple counting from one to ten showed the differences between my approach and the other person. Another example that I came across was the way we use gestures to display agreement or disagreement.
The significance of signs and gestures differ from place to place. One cannot assume its complete universality, yet there may exist certain universal characteristics. The signs to express that we are thirsty or hungry, or we need water to drink, etc., vary from one region to another. Are signs and gestures characteristic of a language? Is it possible to separate signs and gestures from human languages? We know that sign languages are not universal, and some sign languages are closely tied to human languages. Take, for example, American sign language is different from the French sign language. However, there are significant similarities between sign languages and spoken languages3 in the way human brains process them. The same regions of the brain are activated for both spoken and sign languages, for example, Broca's area.
What about facial expressions? The way we express exclamation or sadness; the emotional expressions on our faces seem to be universal. One can distinguish the expressions of pain, joy, victory from facial expressions. Facial expressions besides gestures and body movements can help us understand when there is cheering up of a team or when we sense a loss. We can identify them, even though the words used for these events may not be universal. For example, the phrase "wow!" cannot be assumed to be universal. But by looking at the facial expressions and body events, we can identify this exclamation.
By basing their research using 6 million video clips of events and interactions from 144 countries, recent research work states that the facial expressions are universal and identified sixteen of them1,2. This is an interesting study and may open doors to other research works for understanding the universality of body movements, signs, and gestures. We may find one day that despite some minor differences, there exist certain universal features.