Does the use of hand gestures slow language learning?

ResearchBlogging.orgNora was an excellent talker, starting at a very young age, but that didn't mean that she couldn't express herself in other ways. Here, for example, she points to a the item she wants. It's entirely possible that she didn't yet know the word "stick," but she was still quite able to express her desire.


But what happens if a child is particularly successful at expressing her needs using gestures? Does development of spoken language suffer? One approach to this problem is to look language development in cultures that tend to use more gestures. Many studies have confirmed the "stereotype" that Italians are more physically expressive than other groups. It stands to reason that even Italian infants probably learn more gestures at an earlier age than babies in other cultures.

An international group led by Jana Iverson carefully observed three Italian infants and three American infants during the critical early period of language learning, from 10 months to 24 months old. The babies were videotaped for 30 minutes each month doing three activities: playing with their own toys, playing with a standard set of toys provided by the experimenter, and at mealtime. Speech and gestures were carefully categorized.

Gestures can be broken down into two distinct categories: deictic and representational. Deictic gestures are those that refer to something around the child -- pointing, showing an object, or reaching for something. Representational gestures have meaning independent of the objects around the child: nodding yes, holding a fist to the ear to mean "telephone," and so on. This graph compares deictic gestures in the five months leading up to the point where children could speak in two-word phrases:


For deictic gestures (pointing, etc.), there's not much difference between Italian and American infants. In some months, Americans actually used deictic gestures significantly more often than Italians. But what about representational gestures? Here are those results:


Now we see a dramatic difference: Italian children use significantly more representational gestures -- where the gesture itself conveys meaning -- than American children. Indeed, Italians use these gestures nearly as often as deictic gestures. So how does the use of gestures affect spoken language learning? This graph charts the number of different spoken words used by the children:


The American children said significantly more words at each month of development than Italian children. They also spoke more two-word phrases. However, the difference is perfectly accounted for by the greater number of representational gestures used by Italians. There's also an Italian version of a two-word phrase: a gesture and a phrase, which once again compensates for the difference in number of two-word phrases used.

Though this is a very small group of children, the results are statistically significant, and they match well with other research that finds adult Italians use more gestures than Americans. There's certainly no evidence that Italians can't communicate just as well as Americans -- they simply have a richer assortment of gestures to complement spoken language.

J. M. Iverson, O. Capirci, V. Volterra, S. Goldin-Meadow (2008). Learning to talk in a gesture-rich world: Early communication in Italian vs. American children First Language, 28 (2), 164-181 DOI: 10.1177/0142723707087736

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We Italians are notoriously quite bad in learning new languages, I wonder if gesturing more gives less language learning skills as well. At the same time we have a special skill in making people understand us anywhere in the world, through our gestures, body postures, face expressions and different tones of voice. In Italy we have a very high number of dialects but I noticed that we share a common language through gestures.

It's "DOES the use of hand gestures." Please, pay attention; grammar matters. "The use of hand gestures" is the subject, and it is singular.

It would be nice to see an expanded study that looks at a larger group of children. Were these children sex-matched as well as age-matched? I wonder if including a group of children raised by American families who rely heavily on sign language due to a deaf family member would shed light on the issue? These are very interesting preliminary results.

Kaleberg: Yes, sorry -- I fixed it concurrently with your comment. I had modified the headline from a different version ("Do gestures...") and didn't manage to get the grammar quite correct.

The critical question, however, is do the Italian kids lag behind in understanding the words they hear, and do they lag behind in production at age 3, say, or 4? In other words, is the mere production of more words, as opposed to word or gesture (since all the charts are before the production of two word phrases, a leg up on fluency, or merely a different representation of competence? Do Italian kids produce two-word utterances later than American ones? three-four words utterances? Or is this just an indication that their language encompasses gestures as well as sounds?

I guess I'm asking, what's the justification for the label "slowing language learning"?

I have to agree with Ridger on this one. If the data can indeed be confirmed, it still does not imply "slow language learning."
Firstly, just a technicality, since gesturing itself is a part of language, learning more pantomime than words does not mean that the overall "language" has gone down. Both gestures and words are subsets of language.
And also as Ridger pointed out, I think you need to look at the structure of language learning in the Italians, over merely the number of words they can utter.

Eh, there's more than one possible reason for the smaller Italian productive vocabulary. Italian also has grammatical gender, unlike English. It also has more complicated conjugations of regular verbs than does English. This reduces the frequency of any particular form of a word, which will slow down learning, as the kid has to figure out that "io parlo" (I speak) and "tu parli" (you speak) are the same word.

A fairer comparison would be Italian and French, or Italian and Romanian, or something like that. Or maybe Northern Italian vs Southern Italian (do they gesture equally much?).

What about those infants who learn solely representational gestures? FOr example, infants of parents who are deaf, who communicate via sign language? May I just so politely suggest that those infants who are using representational gestures, in fact ARE using language? It's all about the context. For babies of deaf parents, the use of representational gestures is a key indication of language acquisition, because those infants and toddlers are showing not only language comprehension, but the ability to communicate.
Just a thought.

In response to Michael Vanderdonk:

I was very interested to find out what the site said about children who learn to sign before they learn how to speak. The first research article on the site stated that children who learned to sign before speaking tested with higher IQ's and communicated better than those who didn't.

My brother did not learn to speak until much later than normal and my mother was prompted to send him to speech therapy. The speech therapist taught him to sign. My brother eventually learned how to speek but he has always been super shy and cannot communicate effectively. Perhaps the difference was that he was taught to sign BECAUSE he could not speak.

As someone who works with young children with language impairments (I'm an SLP/diagnostician), I've seen a lot of practicioners encouraging the use of signs in children that weren't verbally communicating. This gnawed at me, but I couldn't put my finger on why exactly until reading this post. Teaching signs rather than oral language does not necessarily inhibit a child's ability to learn language, but it does inhibit a child's ability to communicate to others that don't use signs. This is not a problem in Italy where gesture use is the norm, but it does imply that in the U.S. where the norm is not to use signs, that for a child struggling to learn language, the use of gestures should only occur as an absolute last resort.

I'm not sure what this is supposed to show. So, Italian children use more representational gestures than American children; American children use more deictic gestures than Italian children. American children use more words than two-word phrases than Italian children, but it all comes out in the wash when they mature to adulthood.

It seems to me that insofar as representational gestures convey meaning just as well as verbal phrases they ought to count as a kind of pre-language.