Spontaneous gestures can help children learn, whether they use a spoken language or sign language, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.

Previous research by Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Psychology, has found that gesture helps children develop their language, learning and cognitive skills. Goldin-Meadow's new study examines how gesturing contributes to language learning in hearing and in deaf children.

She concluded that gesture is a flexible way of communicating, one that can work with language to communicate or, if necessary, can itself become language. "Children who can hear use gesture along with speech to communicate as they acquire spoken language," Goldin-Meadow said.

"Those gesture-plus-word combinations precede and predict the acquisition of word combinations that convey the same notions. The findings make it clear that children have an understanding of these notions before they are able to express them in speech," she said.

In addition to children who learned spoken languages, Goldin-Meadow studied children who learned sign language from their parents. She found that they too use gestures as they use American Sign Language. These gestures predict learning, just like the gestures that accompany speech.

Finally, Goldin-Meadow looked at deaf children whose hearing losses prevented them from learning spoken language, and whose hearing parents had not presented them with conventional sign language. These children use homemade gesture systems, called homesign, to communicate.

Homesign shares properties in common with natural languages but is not a full-blown language, perhaps because the children lack "a community of communication partners," Goldin-Meadow said. Nevertheless, homesign can be the first step toward an established sign language, researchers said.

The study will be published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.


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