Human languages are full of puzzles. For example, why do languages that have different forms for singular and plural nouns usually have shorter singular forms and longer plural forms for most nouns, like flower – flowers in English? Why are you more likely to say, give me my money than give my money to me? Why do languages like Latin or Czech, which have flexible word order, also tend to have case marking? For example, the Latin word liber “book” will have different forms depending on whether you say “The book is interesting” (liber), “I read a book” (librum) or “I found it in a book” (libro).

The future is in your hands: Can we predict what someone will say next based on their hand gestures?

Yesterday I visited a friend. I just sat down on their couch, when my friend began to ask me, “Would you like to…” From just these words, I didn’t know how the question would end, but I saw that my friend was simultaneously gesturing as if she was drinking something. Because of this, I could already predict that my friend was about to ask if I wanted something to drink and could begin planning my response (I was thirsty, so definitely “yes”!). This way, I could respond quickly and without hesitation to my friend’s question.

Why is responding quickly important in conversation?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we spent a lot of time video calling each other, using apps like Zoom, Skype, and Teams. If your experience was anything like mine, you probably also thought that these interactions felt less satisfying than the real life equivalent. Connection issues meant that people would often freeze or disappear, their speech would sound odd, and you often wouldn’t know when to take your turn to speak. In fact, these connection issues would mean that there were regularly long gaps between the end of one person’s sentence and the beginning of the next person’s. These gaps would leave you wondering if the other person had heard you, most likely prompting you to say something like “Hello? Are you there?”.