Within gesture studies, gesture and speech is often conceived of as a single communicative system. This means that human production of gestures are temporally and semantically synchronized with the concurrent verbal phrase, or vice versa. These multimodal clusters are described as constructions where the modalities add different but interrelated content to a common semantic whole, an Utterance (e.g. Goldin-Meadow, 2009, 2011; Kendon, 2004; Murillo & Belinchón, 2012).
While this appears to be true for a large amount of gesture types – in particular those who fall under the heading Co-speech Gestures (i.e. gesture that by definition co-occur with a spoken utterance) – there are other gestures that are less explored as to their relation to speech and multimodal meaning. Among these other gestures we find emblems, a vaguely defined group of gestures that are often claimed to carry a semantic meaning on their own, regardless of (optional) concurrent verbalizations (McNeill, 1992).
The present study investigated two emblematic gesture forms – nods and headshakes – and their appearance and use in a longitudinal, naturalistic material of child-child and child-adult interaction. The data consists of 11 Swedish children in the ages 0;9 to 5;10 years of age, recorded during a period of 2 ½ years as they interacted with siblings, parents, and friends in their home environment. In all, 22 hours of video recordings were transcribed and analyzed. From the data we could conclude two main factors: i) even emblems appear to be largely speech dependent for their interpretation; and ii) nods and headshakes appear to follow different developmental trajectories and behave rather differently throughout the ages studied. These findings will be discussed in relation to language development in general and to the perceptive system of humans in particular.
Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2009). How gesture promotes learning throughout childhood. Child Development Perspectives, 3, 106-111.
Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2011). Learning through gesture, in Advanced Review, WIREs Cognitive Science, Vol 2., pp. 595-607. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Kendon, Adam (2004). Gesture. Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge University Press.
McNeill, David (1992). Hand and Mind. What gestures reveal about thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Murillo, Eva & Mercedes Belinchón (2012). Gestural-vocal coordination. Longitudinal changes and predictive value on early lexical development. Gesture, 12 (1), 16-39.