What is the relationship between gesture and language?

Since the very beginning of our lives human interaction is characterized by two complex systems of communication: gestures and words. At ISTC the Gesture, Language Acquisition and Developmental Disorders research unit (GLADD), within the Language and Communication Across Modalities Laboratory (LaCAM), studies gestures, language and their interaction in child development. 

Gesture is a robust feature of communicative development, as all children use gestural behavior. Speech and gestures are bound to each other in time, testifying with their synchrony a close link between these two systems.

Systematic interest in communicative gestures performed by infants in the first stages of language acquisition and development underwent a rapid expan­sion in the mid 1970s. In this period gestures were explored primarily as relevant features of a prelinguistic stage, that is, as behaviours that preceded and prepared the emergence of language. At that time language was identified more or less ex­plicitly with speech.

Currently there is a new interest which provides the possibility to better explore since the beginning the tight link between gestural motoric and spoken linguistic representation in young children. A clear continuity between prelinguistic and linguistic form emerged: between actions, gestures and spoken words. But how children's gestures become organized into the adult speech-gesture system?

At ISTC the Language and Communication Across Modalities Laboratory (LaCAM) works to answer this question. These studies strongly support the view that there is a remarkable continuity between prelinguistic and linguistic development, and that symbolic skills that are most evident in vocal linguistic productions are inestricably linked to, and co-evolve with more general cognitive and representational abilities. Researches showed that initially gestures have the function to help the child in the construction and expression of meaning. This happens through the use of different functions: pointing, conventional-interactive gestures (such as "yes", "no", "good", "hello"), representational gestures that mimic specific objects, actions or events. When words start to be emerging and integrate gestural production, gesture use is specifically linked to language development.

When children start to produce longer strings of words, they also begin to perform pragmatic gestures that are not a part of the referential meaning: this signs the evolution of gesture language system in infancy towards the adult system. 

Contact: Olga Capirci

ISTC Group: Language and Communication Across Modalities Laboratory (LaCAM)

Relevant publications

Capirci,O., Contaldo, A., Caselli, M.C., Volterra, V. (2005). From Action to language through gesture: a longitudinal perspective. Gesture, 5, 155-177.

Capirci, O., Volterra, V. (2008). Gesture and Speech. The emergence and development of a strong and changing partnership. Gesture, 8/1, 22-44

Capirci, O., Cristilli, C., De Angelis, V., Graziano, M. (2011, in press). Learning to use gesture in narratives: developmental trends in formal and semantic gesture competence. In G. Stam and M. Ishino (eds) Integrating Gestures. John Benjamins

Caselli, M.C., Rinaldi, P., Stefanini, S., Volterra, V. (in press). Early Action/gesture "vocabulary" and its relationship with word comprehension and production. Child Development.

Stefanini, S., Bello, A., Iverson, J.M., Caselli, M.C., e Volterra, V. (2009). Co-speech gestures in a naming task: developmental data. Language and Cognitive Processes. 24/2, 168-189.