Directional gestures are something I’ve been doing with Chinese teaching for about six years, but this is the first year I’ve had enough students at the same level to see what the broad effect of them is. (Of course, to be rigorous, it’s impossible to separate the directional gestures from the tonal spelling from the color coding…but, oh well.)

The use of gestures seems to be “optional” in TPRS these days, but for Chinese teaching, I find them extremely useful. Not only does the gesture serve as a quick means of assessment, or a kinesthetic means of having pairs of students review vocabulary, but in a tonal language, the movement can provide information on the tones that is far more memorable than a diacritic mark over a syllable, or a number.

Every gesture I associate with a vocabulary item (these could be words or phrases) moves in the direction or directions of the tones of the individual syllables, and the movement as a whole somehow represents the meaning of the item. So, for example, the phrase “make a phone call” in Mandarin, which is “da DianHua” (a low tone followed by two falling tone syllables) is represented by punching the palm of the left hand with the finger of the right hand [like a Touch-Tone dialing pad], then making a hang-up-the-phone gesture with the hand twice, in a downward motion as though you’re slamming the phone down. The same second part of the item’s gesture sequence can be recycled for use in, say, “answer the phone” (JIE DianHua) which starts with a high tone — perhaps the motion of someone picking up the receiver on a wall-mounted phone.

Of course you have to consider the experiences of your students. I realized recently when giving a gesture for “bus” (GONGCHE, two high tones — I chose to use a horizontal motion with the right hand holding an imaginary ring or strap, such as you might find on a bus for those standing) that most of the kids I was looking at would never have taken anything other than a school bus, and those certainly don’t have rings or straps or even overhead grab bars.

The consistent use of gestures to reinforce the “untaught” words is really useful. I have set gestures for the question words, of course, but also for items like “…de* shIHou” (“when” in the sense of “when I go to school” instead of the question word.) Although I have never formally taught that structure, the consistent use of the gesture means that I can cue that item easily. (For the sake of completeness, I use the right index finger circling from the top of the left wrist around the hand and downward to the base of the wrist, then upward and down to tap an imaginary wristwatch…note the up and down motion that matches the tones of “shIHou”. )

And while relatively few of my students come out with “Bu” in place of “meI” (since they learned “meIyou” as an item with a strong gesture and a strong phonetic mnemonic [meIyou mayo at night when you want to make a sandwich for a snack!] now when we want to do Q&A in past tense, it’s easy to cue them that the way to negate a verb in the past in Mandarin is to add “meIyou” before it, rather than using “Bu”.

Of course there are drawbacks, like the woman in my adult class who commented one night, “Oh! [lights going on moment] That’s what you’re doing! I thought you were just lousy at ASL.”