The Development and Importance of Gestures: The Psychology of Language and Gesture

Gesture is something highly important to development and is closely linked with language, so closely in fact that we do indeed use gesture as form of language. (Sign language). Psychologists have done much research into the area of gesture to try and find the answer to the questions around the perceived importance of gesture, and whether indeed it is so important. Dewey (1938) looked into the importance of gesture, questioning whether indeed observation in learning was as good as actions in learning. In other words, would one learn as much if they simply observed as if they physically were involved within the learning process. Much research has then stemmed from this.

An important note is that there is not simply one form of gesture, and a gesture can fall into four categories. Each form of gesture develops at individual stages for the child, however these stages may over lap. However the gestures types and development stages are shown in approximates here. The development of deictic gestures (those gestures which indicate, such as pointing) tend to develop first at approximately 8 months old to around 10 months old. This does somewhat coincide with language development, in that it is often around this point the child is developing their first word, however should usually be into the cooing and babbling stage, as suggested by Bowen (1998). Following this, but often at a similar time is conventional gesturing, (such as nodding and waving) again these occur around 8 months but can be expected to emerge as late as 12 months. At around 10 months plus of age, the child is likely to use what are known as symbolic gestures, these are those gestures which form representations of a concrete object (such as a phone) and are most likely the gestures which have much attention paid to them in research as they serve the purpose of a representation of an actual object which is not present. As you will see, these gestures each begin their development in close proximity to one another, however, beginning to develop much later (around 5 – 7 years) are what are known as emphatic gestures, these are the often none coordinate, meaningless gestures which accompany everyday speech.

Of course there have been some suggestions of a unified speech-gesture communicative system (McNeill, 1992 touches upon this) and Goldin-Meadow and McNeill (1999) directly mention this system yet mention also that whilst speech may be more redundant without the accompaniment of gestures, it is the speech component in hearing individuals which plays the more prominent role. A simple indication of this would look like the model below.

  • Speech: Describes emotions, etc.
  • Gestures: Act as a description of the speech.

McNeill (2000) furthers to say that gestures serve the function of conveying the messages which speech failed to convey. However, gestures seem to be more important than that as work by Planquist and Jaswal (2012) strongly suggests that toddlers and infants are more attentive to gesturing over speech and research by Iverson has made further suggestions, one being that gesturing may be an innate function as both blind and seeing children gesture (of course we must take into consideration the level of blindness, as few to no people have a visual acuity of 0/30) however, more convincing on the importance of gesture is that the inhabitation of gesturing seems to have a negative impact on the memory.

Several reasons can explain this, I refer to long term potentiation, a theory in which it is suggested that the stronger the connections within the brain the higher the chance of memories being made, thus meaning the more a neuron fires, the stronger the connection consequently there is a higher chance of memories being made. With this theory in mind I bring up mirror neurons (Goldin-Meadow et al, 2013) this suggests that when someone gestures and observes due to the activation of both motor and visual neurons, plus mirror neurons which activate when the individual is exposed to both phenomena, there are more neurons firing thus stronger links are made thus there is a higher chance of memory improvement. This was also backed up by research by O’Neill and Miller (2013) as they found that gesture seemed more important than age in tasks concerning organisation and memory as their sample of 41 children aged 2 and half to 6, those children who gestured more proved better in all tasks regardless of ability to gesture within the task, thus suggesting a higher memory retention likely due to the amount of gesturing the child regularly performed.

Further research by Goldin-Meadow et al (2013) found that in cases concerning move gestures (the actual symbolic movement) and point gestures (the deictic gestures mentioned earlier) that children allowed to perform the move gestures performed better in memory and perception tasks than did those children allowed only to observe move gestures, however they found that observation of move gestures were preferable to simple exposure (of any kind) to deictic gesturing alone as this did not serve to facilitate learning in any way.

Dermir et al (2013) also brought forward some interesting points in that they found that the allowance of both gesture and speech in visually engaging tasks was beneficial to toddlers with unilateral (one sided) brain damage when they had typical development, even though this group has been suggested to struggler more with development of several kinds. This combined with the findings that gesture is a good indication of speech (Rowe, 2009) and that early gesturing can prove to be a sign of linguistic delay in brain damaged infants (Levine et al, 2010) would then suggest an important scaffolding framework and may have educational implications.

Gesture has also been thanked for closer bonds between mother and child, some of you may have heard of child directed speech, the higher pitched tone used when speaking to small children, there are also such things as motionese, where there are emphasised and more playful gestures offered to small children, and gestures. Both these includes being within close proximity to the child and using simple, repeated and fast gestures or movements for the child's attention and processing. Brand et al says that it is a facilitator of learning human behaviour (especially if Vygotsky’s ZPD theory is correct) and certainly helps to engage attention of the infant (refer back to Palmquist and Jaswal, 2012).

As with all actions, it is not exception to say that gestures and motions are indeed context dependent and are likely more beneficial to be accompanied by other communicative techniques (e.g. speech).


O’Neill, G. & Miller, H. (2013). A Show of Hands: Relations Between Young Children’s Gesturing and Executive Function. Developmental Psychology, 49(8), 1517–1528

Susan Goldin-Meadow, Susan C. Levine, Elena Zinchenko, Terina KuangYi Yip, Naureen Hemani and Laiah Factor. Doing gesture promotes learning a mental transformation task better than seeing gesture. Developmental Science 15:6 (2012), pp 876–884

Özlem Ece Demir, Joan A. Fisher, Susan Goldin-Meadow, and Susan C. Levine (2013) Narrative Processing in Typically Developing Children and Children With Early Unilateral Brain Injury: Seeing Gesture Matters

Developmental psychology. DOI: 10.1037/a0034322

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