Friday, February 27, 2009

Gesture and language acquisition

Gestures precede speech development and, after speech development, continue to enrich the communication process. Comparing how young children and their parents used gesture in their communications with analyses of socioeconomic status and of the child's vocabulary at age 54 months, Rowe and Goldin-Meadow find disparities in gesture use that precede vocabulary disparities (Children from lower socioeconomic brackets tend to have smaller vocabularies than children from higher socioeconomic brackets.) Their abstract:
Children from low–socioeconomic status (SES) families, on average, arrive at school with smaller vocabularies than children from high-SES families. In an effort to identify precursors to, and possible remedies for, this inequality, we videotaped 50 children from families with a range of different SES interacting with parents at 14 months and assessed their vocabulary skills at 54 months. We found that children from high-SES families frequently used gesture to communicate at 14 months, a relation that was explained by parent gesture use (with speech controlled). In turn, the fact that children from high-SES families have large vocabularies at 54 months was explained by children's gesture use at 14 months. Thus, differences in early gesture help to explain the disparities in vocabulary that children bring with them to school.


  1. The research is another example of enrichment distinctions between low socio-economic and high socio-economic.

    Are there other variables in addition to socio-economic that could influence the results

  2. Good morning Deric-

    I browsed through your last post and back trails, and if I am understanding things, it seems that human being is not only the tool maker, he is analogously, the language maker. It seems that modules for tool making and language making evolve into existence but the tools and languages themselves get made and developed according to contextual needs. Is this an appropriate 'take away' from this research?

  3. From this post specifically, I wanted to bring up Merlin Donald, another NBer, and his book, A Mind So Rare. He goes into depth with this idea of gesturing preceding language as the evolutionary underpinnings of human language development. This seems to me to coincide with Lakoff's ideas in The Metaphors We Live By, where he argues that we don't see an object as a telescope does, rather all the seeing we do is mitigated through underlying metaphors that begin with the experience of existing as bodies with an interior and exterior which lead to our 'container' frames of reference such as in and out. Etc. This seems to me to be another facet of our overall language development.

  4. The idea is that the evolved human brain is distinctive in being able, in the right physical and social environment, to grow the pathways that let it be a tool maker and language generator. These are functional modules but not necessarily physical ones, for they are distributed widely over the brain.

    I think Merlin Donald's arguments are correct, I cited his ideas extensively in my book. The bootstrapping sequence of body/gesture/language/metaphor seems very compelling to me, because there is an evolutionary rationale for each small step and the steps keep building on themselves.