Spencer Kelly

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Spencer Kelly

Hurley Family Chair, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and Neuroscience; Director, Linguistics Program

Department/Office Information

Psychological and Brain Sciences, Neuroscience
105D Olin Hall


What role does the body play with language? My research investigates this question from different perspectives using different methods, but it is built on a single theoretical framework. Working from the position that language is an embodied ability that evolved from bodily communication systems (gestures, facial expressions, eye gaze, etc.) in our evolutionary past, my work investigates how language interacts with the body in present-day communication.

I focus primarily on hand gestures that spontaneously accompany speech. These gestures are interesting because they occur simultaneously with speech but reflect meaning in a distinct way from words.

For example, the form and movement of different drinking gestures—a gentle movement with a small precision grasp depicts sipping from a sake cup whereas a more abrupt movement with a closed fist depicts drinking from a large beer mug—capture the meaning of these two actions in a direct and non-arbitrary way. In contrast, spoken words reflect meaning only indirectly and arbitrarily through the particular conventions of a language. For example, the words, “nomu” in Japanese, and, “drink” in English, are utterly unrelated to the actual act of imbibing. This difference is exactly why co-speech gesture is so interesting—it offers a direct visual complement to the conventional symbols of a language, and when combined with those symbols, provides a more complete “picture” of what a speaker means.

My research on the relationship between speech and gesture spans social, psychological, and neural levels. On the social and psychological levels, I use behavioral methods to demonstrate that gestures influence how children and adults comprehend language in different social contexts, and how they think during the explanation of difficult concepts. On the neural level, I use event-related potentials (ERPs) to show that gestures influence speech at multiple stages of language comprehension. See below for PDFs on these different topics.

For more on my work and the work of my collaborators, please visit my Google Scholar page, and you can find me on Twitter at @sdk_lab. If you are interested in learning more about the world of gesture, you can visit the webpage for the International Society for Gesture Studies (ISGS).

(Hyperlinks lead to PDF files or download sites)


"Why Gesture?," edited by Breckie Church, Martha Alibali and Spencer Kelly, asks why we move our hands when we speak and why that is such an important interdisciplinary question.

Church, R. B., Alibali, M., & Kelly, S. D. (2017). Why gesture? How the hands function in speaking, thinking and communicating. John Benjamins Publishing: Amsterdam. pp. 1-433.

  • Kelly, S. D., Alibali, M. W., & Church, R. B. (2017). Understanding gesture: Description, mechanism and function. In R. B. Church, M. W. Alibali & S. D. Kelly (Eds.), Why gesture? How the hands function in speaking, thinking and communicating. John Benjamins Publishing: Amsterdam. pp. 3-10.
  • Kelly, S. D. (2017). Exploring the boundaries of gesture-speech integration during language comprehension. In R. B. Church, M. W. Alibali & S. D. Kelly (Eds.), Why gesture? How the hands function in speaking, thinking and communicating. John Benjamins Publishing: Amsterdam. pp. 243-265.

Journal Articles

* denotes Colgate undergraduate

BA (History), Washington University in St. Louis, 1991
*Student-at-large (Experimental Psychology), Northeastern Illinois University, 1992-1994
MA & PhD (Developmental Psychology), University of Chicago, 1997 & 1999

*Special note: I am very grateful for the transformative experience of taking courses and doing research in the Psychology department at NEIU after graduating from college. It was there where I became fascinated by the scientific study of why we gesture.

Download complete CV

Co-speech hand gestures, cognitive neuroscience, verbal and nonverbal communication, psycholinguistics, developmental psychology, second language learning

Event-related potentials (ERPs) are one of the cognitive neuroscience tools that I use in my lab. Check out this short video to learn how they work and what questions they can answer.

Dr. Kelly is the co-director of Colgate's Center for Language and Brain (CLB) which focuses on, among other things, issues involved in foreign language instruction and learning. Check out the video below to learn how the CLB promotes the psychological and social benefits of learning a foreign language at Colgate.

Visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands (spring 2005, 2009); Allen Edwards Lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle (fall 2008)

  • Included in the Princeton Review's The Best 300 Professors, 2012
  • Picker Research Fellowship, Colgate University (2005-2006, 2009)
  • Picker Interdisciplinary Research Grant, Colgate University (2007-2009)
  • Gastwissenschaftler (Visiting Scientist) at the MPI CBS, Leipzig, Germany (Summer, 2007)
  • Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, University of Louisville (1999-2000)
  • Pre-Doctoral National Research Service Award, University of Chicago, declined (1999)
  • William Rainey Harper Dissertation Fellowship, University of Chicago (1998-1999)
  • John Dewey Lectureship Prize, University of Chicago (1998)
  • Division of Social Sciences Scholarship, University of Chicago (1994-1998) 

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."

- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Colgate's Center for Language Brain explores questions regarding foreign language instruction and learning. 

To achieve our educational mission, Colgate aims to balance academic freedom and freedom of expression with essential community values, such as humility, empathy and concern for others. To learn more about how our university aspires to achieve this (often times, difficult) balance, check out Colgate's AF/FE Statement. Here is an example of efforts on campus to put the Statement's principles into action.

Please feel free to contact Prof. Kelly if you have thoughts on this aspirational statement.

Based on my "Language and Thought" seminar that I teach at Colgate, I was invited to teach a "Great Course" for the Teaching Company. If you are interested, check it out here.  

Language and the Mind