Grandma Was Wrong: Gesturing Babies End Up With Better Vocabularies

By Eliza Strickland | February 13, 2009 10:37 am

toddler pointingToddlers who use gestures to convey more meanings at the age of 14 months have more extensive vocabularies when they enter school several years later, a new study has revealed. “Our findings contradict the folklore,” said Prof Susan Goldin-Meadow, co-author on the study. “Your grandma always told you – if you’re really articulate you shouldn’t have to use your hands at all” [BBC News]. Instead, there’s a clear link between gestures and language acquisition, Goldin-Meadow says.

The effect begins with the parents, researchers say–parents who gesture more when interacting with their toddlers produce the same behavior in their children. But unfortunately, the parental habit is distributed unevenly, researchers say, with wealthier, better-educated parents gesturing much more to their children. This may help explain why some children from low-income families fare less well in school. “When children enter school, there is a large socioeconomic gap in their vocabularies” [Reuters], says lead researcher Meredith Rowe. Encouraging lower income parents to gesture more to their children, Rowe says, might help erase that gap.

While the study, published in Science [subscription required], didn’t pin down a causal relationship between gestures and enriched vocabulary, child development experts says that such a connection makes intuitive sense. Denise Boggs, a speech pathologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital, said gesturing to young children may teach them ways to communicate before their oral muscles develop enough to form speech. The idea of it is to give them a voice,” Boggs said. “For any child that is not talking, it gives them a framework, gives them an idea of what communication is for, and down the road they fill that in with verbalizations” [Chicago Tribune].

It’s also possible that a toddler’s gestures may spark more “teachable moments,” creating opportunities for verbal reinforcements of ideas. “The child points at a dog and the parent says, ‘Yes, that’s a dog,’” says Rowe [Science News].

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Image: Science/AAAS

MORE ABOUT: language, learning
  • perspectoff

    This is an excellent article about teaching language to children.

    It is something the families of dyslexic children have known for decades. The Orton-Gillingham Multisensory Method of language instruction has been in use since the 1930s and is one of the few methods (if not the only method) shown to work for dyslexics..

    Words and phrases are accentuated by gestures and other visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic cues.

    It is not surprising that what works for dyslexic children would work for the general population.

  • Steve W

    This also makes sense in terms of evolutionary psychology. Great apes and other bright creatures can’t speak, but decades of study have revealed how articulate they can be if allowed to gesture. If spoken language is a late, complex development like the neocortex, then gestural communication would be the older, more widespread and still effective medium.

  • jpt

    It’s just trendyism that’s all.
    A different survey will show a different result next week.

  • beach bum

    It’s funny how it seems so obvious to me that, “Of course you gesture towards babies!” To me it seems intuitive that if you care about your children’s thoughts, you will try to communicate with them from a very early age. I think the bigger question raised here is: what do parents in low-income families do differently? What do they do in the absence of gesturing and communicating? The low-income vocabulary gap has been very well documented, and overcoming it should be a high priority for the immediate future. Of course it will be difficult to change people’s patterns of behavior, but it is important to try to understand why things have developed the way they have.

    It does seem imperative that all children should grow up feeling important and knowing that their opinions matter. I hope we can find a way to support parents as they raise the next generation.

  • http://clipit ELLINGTON

    beach bum my sentiments exactly,i couldn’t of said it better myself. well said.

  • http://clipit ELLINGTON

    jpt read beach bum , nothing to do with trendy- ism common sense tells you its how beach bum Say’s it.

  • ATC

    Has anyone checked out the families of deaf parents, especially if only one of the parents is deaf so the child see’s the signing and speaking…I gotta say the difference between gestering and signing is the difference between a real language and baby talk, so I would think those kids of a deaf parent would be ahead.

  • Sven G.

    How about offering a counter-argument instead of sarcasm, Ellington? You could start out with the fact that the sample size might not be large enough, and then move on to the standard “correlation is not causation.” After that you could make the argument that the children of the rich have more educational resources available to them; ranging from nannies and tutors to all the ‘edutainment’ they could possibly want or need.

    I almost chuckled though. Almost.

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  • Firemouse

    I’m a parent, and I’ve never read or encountered this supposed old wives’ tale. No grandmothers I know have ever made any comments revealing beliefs about babies gesturing.

    Is it being generalized from some particular ethnic or cultural group?

  • Cliff Clark

    We are parents of a Deaf child, now 27 years old. If one reads Harlan Lane’s book, “When the Mind Hears”, about the history of the education of Deaf people and the politics involved, one realizes that the suppression of sign language has a long and terrible history. In summary, the American school (later to become Gaulladet College, then Gaulladet University) was established by the hearing father of a deaf girl, who invited a Deaf French educator to come and set up the school. for the first 80 years of its history, the school educated a large number of Deaf students in a wide variety of subjects, graduating Deaf students who were at least as fluent in the academic subject as their hearing peers. The teachers of these students were Deaf. In 1880 the oral movement, led by Alexander Graham Bell and others, implemented “reforms” that resulted in the replacement of Deaf teachers of Deaf students with hearing teachers and the active and brutal suppression of sign language and Deaf culture. The result was a swift and precipitous decline in the academic achievement and employability of Deaf people and their subsequent marginalization in North American society. It has only been in the last two decades that Deaf people have made some progress in reasserting their legal and human rights and their place in society, though by no means have they come back to where they were before 1880.

    When our child was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s we frequently found ourselves immersed within a community of oralists whose primary intention was to foster speech and suppress sign language. We had to be careful not to sign at all in their presence. At one parents’ meeting the phone rang and, not wanting to disrupt the flow of conversation I signed (crudely) to my wife, “Phone – you?” with an eyebrow raised to indicate the question. This amount of signing was sufficient for several of the parents to take us to task in a very unpleasant manner for about 30 minutes after the meeting for the use of sign. Their attitude toward any gestures was the same. Needless to say, I doubt that this philosophy and attitude has completely disappeared. So, to answer those who may doubt that “the old wives tale” and similar attitudes exist – they do. And they are extremely destructive to Deaf people.

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