Thursday, February 12, 2009
Infants' gestures linked to larger vocabulary
Kids who make broader use of gestures to communicate when they are 14 months old have larger vocabularies later, when they start school.
That's from a study presented here in Chicago, where I'm spending the next few days at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The researchers who did the study said the findings on gestures could help explain why wealthier kids have larger vocabularies than poor kids. Researchers have known that wealthy mothers speak to their children more than do poor mothers. The new research shows that the wealthy mothers use more gestures, too--giving their kids an added advantage in language development.
Psychology Prof. Susan Goldin-Meadow (photo) and post-doctoral fellow Meredith Rowe, of the University of Chicago, said they have not proven that broader use of gestures causes better language development; so far they have merely shown the connection. But they are pursuing the idea that the use of gestures does indeed foster language development.
"The act of gesturing may change the mind," Goldin-Meadow said at a press conference.
The researchers observed mothers and children in their homes, video-taping 90 minutes of normal interaction. The key factor was not the number of gestures, or how often they were used, but the variety of meanings conveyed with gestures. A broader "vocabulary" of gestures was the thing that predicted a larger vocabulary when the kids were nearly 5 years old.
Update: Where are the fathers?
As I've noted before, far more studies are done on mothers than on fathers. Of the 50 parents in this study, 49 were mothers. "We looked at primary caregivers," Rowe said when I asked her about that. Is it possible that fathers use gestures differently? Might they have a greater--or lesser--effect on children's vocabularies than mothers do? How can anyone know if researchers don't take a look?