I'm trying to explain the distinction between "gesture" and "sign language" to a person whose first language is Chinese. As I understand it, "gesture" is a general term for communication using body movements, while "sign language" refers to a specific system of communication using gestures, but this distinction is lost on the person I'm explaining it to, and dictionary definitions do not make it clear.

Can someone clarify this in a more readily-understood manner?

  • 1
    A sign language is a formal, agreed-upon set of movements used to replace spoken language. Gestures in general—such as rolling the eyes, shrugging, or flipping the bird—are less formal and don't have a systematized set of meanings.
    – ralph.m
    Dec 10, 2018 at 21:52
  • @ralph.m: You might want to flesh that out into an answer, adding some details as appropriate.
    – bwDraco
    Dec 10, 2018 at 21:54
  • I think your explanation is fine. What part didn't they understand? American Sign Language covers what it is. gesture is a general term and the definition you gave is fine.
    – user3169
    Dec 10, 2018 at 23:07
  • Essentially, what I need is a "simple English" explanation because the person has difficulty with more complex English language constructs and vocabulary.
    – bwDraco
    Dec 10, 2018 at 23:10

2 Answers 2


Based on Longman Exams dictionary, "gesture" is defined as:

a movement of part of your body, especially your hands or head, to show what you mean or how you feel

and about "sign language":

a language that uses hand movements instead of spoken words, used by people who cannot hear well


I suggest you explain that gestures are limited set of actions for which everyone understands the meaning without being taught. People just learn by watching others. In contrast, sign language is an all-purpose method of communication which must be learned.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .