Gestures research suggests language instinct in young children

June 5, 2014, University of Warwick
Credit: Robert Kraft/public domain

Young children instinctively use a 'language-like' structure to communicate through gestures.

Research led by the University of Warwick suggests when are asked to use to communicate, their gestures segment information and reorganise it into language-like sequences. This suggests that children are not just learning language from older generations, their preference for communication has shaped how languages look today.

Dr Sotaro Kita from Warwick's Department of Psychology led the study with Dr Zanna Clay at the University of Neuchatel, Ms Sally Pople at the Royal Hampshire Hospital and Dr Bruce Hood at the University of Bristol.

In the paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, the research team examined how four-year-olds, 12-year-olds and adults used gestures to communicate in the absence of speech. The study investigated whether their gesturing breaks down complex information into simpler concepts. This is similar to the way that language expresses complex information by breaking it down into units (such as words) to express a simpler concept, which are then strung together into a phrase or sentence.

The researchers showed the participants animations of motion events, depicting either a smiling square or circle that moved up or down a slope in a particular manner (eg jump or rolling). Each participant was asked to use their hands to mime the action they saw on the screen without speaking. The researchers examined whether the upward or downward path and the manner of motion were expressed simultaneously in a single gesture or expressed in two separated gestures depicting its manner or path.

Dr Kita said: "Compared to the 12-year-olds and the adults, the four-year-olds showed the strongest tendencies to break down the manner of motion and the path of motion into two separate gestures, even though the manner and path were simultaneous in the original event.

"This means the four-year-olds miming was more language-like, breaking down complex information into simpler units and expressing one piece of information at a time. Just as young children are good at learning languages, they also tend to make their communication look more like a language."

Dr Clay said: "Previous studies of sign languages created by deaf children have shown that young children use gestures to segment information and to re-organise it into -like sequences. We wanted to examine whether hearing children are also more likely to use gesture to communicate the features of an event in segmented ways when compared to adolescents and adults."

The researchers suggest the study provides insight into why languages of the world have universal properties.

Dr Kita added: "All languages of the world break down complex information into simpler units, like words, and express them one by one. This may be because all languages have been learned by, therefore shaped by, young children. In other words, generations of young children's preference for communication may have shaped how languages look today."

Explore further: Multilingual or not, infants learn words best when it sounds like home

More information: The paper, 'Young Children Make Their Gestural Communication Systems More Language-Like: Segmentation and Linearization of Semantic Elements in Motion Events' is published in Psychological Science.

Related Stories

Multilingual or not, infants learn words best when it sounds like home

June 4, 2014
Growing up in a multilingual home has many advantages, but many parents worry that exposure to multiple languages might delay language acquisition. New research could now lay some of these multilingual myths to rest, thanks ...

The structure of language influences learning

October 3, 2013
There are words that convey a meaning, like verbs, nouns or adjectives, and others, like articles or conjunctions that sustain them, providing a structure for the sentence. A few years ago some scientists of the International ...

Children with brain lesions able to use gestures important to language learning

February 20, 2013
Children with brain lesions suffered before or around the time of birth are able to use gestures – an important aspect of the language learning process– to convey simple sentences, a Georgia State University researcher ...

Recommended for you

College students choose smartphones over food

November 16, 2018
University at Buffalo researchers have found that college students prefer food deprivation over smartphone deprivation, according to results from a paper in Addictive Behaviors.

Study finds mindfulness apps can improve mental health

November 15, 2018
A University of Otago study has found that using mindfulness meditation applications (apps) on phones is associated with improvements in people's mental health.

Social media is affecting the way we view our bodies—and not in a good way

November 15, 2018
Young women who actively engage with social media images of friends who they think are more attractive than themselves report feeling worse about their own appearance afterward, a York University study shows.

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.