Offering a thumbs-up, pointing at an object, and tracing a shape in the air —all of these methods of communication are fascinating to Dr. Benjamin J. Bahan, ’79. On April 12, the retiring professor of Deaf Studies delivered the first Gallaudet Legacy Lecture on the topic of “Our Gestural Orientation,” exploring how and why humans use their hands and bodies to express themselves.

Dean of the Faculty Dr. Khadijat K. Rashid, ’90, introduced Bahan, who has worked at Gallaudet since 1996. She told the audience in the I. King Jordan Student Academic Center and online that this will become an annual lecture series.

To explain the aims and origins of his work, Bahan mapped his path from Gallaudet to he Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California to Boston University and then back to Gallaudet. In the early days of his career, he and his colleagues focused exclusively on American Sign Language. But when Bahan interviewed pioneering linguist and long-time Gallaudet professor Dr. William C. Stokoe, H-’88, in 1999, they discussed Stokoe’s regrets. “He wished he hadn’t used a linguistic framework, but had started with gestures,” Bahan explained.

Dr. Benjamin J. Bahan on stage presenting with a screen showing the powerpoint.
Dr. Benjamin J. Bahan presenting the first Gallaudet Legacy Lecture.

That rekindled Bahan’s interest in the area, which has grown over the past two decades. In 2017, he established Gallaudet’s Gesture Literacy Knowledge Studio as a hub for this area of research. Building a video database of gestures from around the world, Bahan has been reminded of the universality of movement in nonverbal communication. “There is no culture that exists without nonverbal communication and gesture,” he said. “It’s in our DNA. Babies point if they want something. They reach out their hands to be held and cared for.”

Bahan noted that humans have walked the earth for hundreds of thousands of years. “Around 50,000 years ago, anatomy evolved for speech,” he said. So gesture is what they must have used to communicate for most of that time, just as hearing people do in many situations today: when interacting with users of a different language, when stealth is required, when taking a vow of silence, or when environmental factors interfere (for instance, underwater or in a noisy place).

Several video clips helped Bahan prove how common it is for hearing people to gesture, whether it is because they’re baseball players relaying information to teammates, comedians emphasizing a point for laughs, or someone in a Zoom conversation with a relative who can’t figure out how to unmute their microphone. Bahan offered examples from multiple countries and cultures, emphasizing why further research could lead to better understanding.

“Gesture is the root of spoken and signed languages,” Bahan said. “At Gallaudet, we need to reclaim this field. I believe it has to be part of Gallaudet’s academic mission.” Although he is retiring, he promised to visit. “And when I come back,” he said, “I would like to see all of you gesturing.”

Recent News

Stay up to date on all the gallaudet happenings, both stories, and initiatives, we are doing with our Signing community!