The Impact of Encouraging Infants to Gesture on Their Language Development
Infants’ gestures feature prominently in early language. The observation that accomplishments in gesture presage verbal milestones prompted the question of whether encouraging infants to gesture would bring on language gains. This thesis addressed this question, remedying many of the shortfalls of previous research. In a yearlong longitudinal study, high-SES mother-infant dyads (n = 40) were randomly allocated to one of four conditions: Symbolic Gesture training, British Sign Language (BSL) training, Verbal training and a Non-Intervention Control group. Infants’ language was continually assessed between the ages of 8 to 20 months to determine the impact of encouraged gesture on language development. With the exception of a small number of boys, encouraging gesture did not affect infants’ language development. However, the expressive language of boys who started the study with a low language ability was improved by gesture. A gesture-training intervention was delivered to low-SES mothers at a Sure Start children’s centre. Infants of mothers trained to gesture showed greater gains in their receptive and expressive vocabularies than infants of mothers who attended sessions aimed to improve general communication (without gesture instruction). Gesture helped reduce the discrepancy between the language abilities of infants from low and high-SES backgrounds. Qualitative investigations revealed how encouraging mothers to use gestures with their infants led to perceived wider, non-linguistic benefits. However, a comparison of maternal and infant stress scores revealed no difference between gesturing and non-gesturing mother-infant dyads. Infants, who because of biological and/or environmental factors have lower language abilities than their peers, stand to benefit from encouraged gesture in infancy. Through early intervention, gesture has the potential to reduce the disadvantage that children from lower-SES families face from impoverished language abilities. By changing the course of their early development, encouraged gesture could ultimately bring about lasting benefits.