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Gestures and gestures in child language development
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Linguistics, General Linguistics.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-7095-0525
2012 (English)Conference paper, Presentation (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

The underlying question in most work on gestures is how the relation between gesture and speech should be understood. This is also the fundamental question in this presentation, where focus is on children’s gestures in relation to language development and socialization.

Gesture studies on adult interaction tend to divide gestural movements into various kinds depending on their assumed relation to spoken language. The group of gestures which have received most attention in the scientific world is the so called “co-speech gestures”, i.e. hand- and arm movements that occur simultaneously with speech and that are integrated temporally and semantically with the verbal utterance (Kendon, 1981, 2004; McNeill, 1992, 2005).

In child language studies, the term co-speech gestures is not used as frequently, although the gestures actually described tend to be within that domain, e.g. the deictic pointing gesture co-occurring with “there” (Tomasello et al.,2007; Rowe et al.,2008). Other child gestures receiving attention are the more pragmatically oriented “grab/reach gesture” or emblematic gestures like “nodding”, “waving goodbye”, etc. (e.g., Bates et al., 1975). Although humans remain children for quite some time the majority of child-gesture studies end when the children reach the vocabulary spurt (around the second birthday). A likely reason is that the questions posed relate to the transition from pre-language to language and the role played by gestural behavior in this developmental interval.

The presentation builds on a study taking the child gestures one step further by allowing the gesture definition to be wider (including in this term movements of the whole body), and the age span studied to go beyond the first two years. The material is longitudinal and consists of child-child and child-adult interaction between the ages 1 to 6. There are 11 children in the study, belonging to five families and they were recorded in their homes regularly during 2 ½ years. The data (in all 22 h) where transcribed and annotated using the ELAN software. The annotations of gestural behavior were categorized according to age of the child, interactional partner (child/adult), setting, activity/semantic theme, and concurrent speech/vocalizations.

In the presentation, main focus will be on two groups of gestural behavior in particular: co-speech gestures and co-activity speech. Whereas the former is an established term (se above), the latter is the term I have been using to describe speech-gesture combinations where the vocalizations seem to be redundant or at least second in priority, for example the utterances made while going through the motions of ritualized and mainly gestural play (e.g., “pat-a-cake”, “peek-a-boo”, “hide-and-seek”). The differences between these two classes of gestural behavior will be illustrated, described, and related to language development, cognitive growth, and socialization patterns. Ending the talk the fundamental question of speech-gesture relation will be addressed and a developmental path including the described gestural forms will be sketched out.



Bates, E., Camaioni, L., & V. Volterra (1975). The acquisition of performatives prior to speech, in Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 21, pp. 205-226.

Kendon, A. (1981). Geography of gesture, in Semiotica, 37, pp. 129-163.

Kendon, A. (2004). Gesture. Visible action as utterance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and mind. What gestures reveal about thought, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

McNeill, D. (2005). Gesture and Thought, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., & U. Liszkowski (2007). A new look at infant pointing, in Child development, 78 (3), pp. 705-722.

Rowe, L.M., Özcaliskan, S., & S. Goldin-Meadow (2008). Learning words by hand: Gesture’s role in predicting vocabulary development, in First Language, Vol. 28 (2), pp. 182-199.

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URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-99459OAI: diva2:687015
From Groomin to Speaking
Available from: 2014-01-13 Created: 2014-01-13 Last updated: 2014-04-29

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