By Margarita Nahapetyan
Infants and toddlers who use gestures more often have better vocabularies upon reaching school age, according to a new study by two University of Chicago psychologists. Pointing, waving bye-bye and other natural gestures appear to boost a budding vocabulary of children.
Scientists found that those toddlers who could convey more meaning with gestures at the age of 14 months turned out to have a richer vocabulary as they prepared to go to school. And, surprisingly enough, whether a family is poor or middle class plays a role, too, the researchers reported on Friday.
Children of fifty families from the Chicago area were studied when they were 14 months old and then again upon reaching 4.5 years. The researchers Susan Goldin-Meadow and Meredith Rowe filmed 90-minute videos of the kids interacting and communicating with their parents at home for the first session, and tested the vocabulary of all kids during the second session. Quantity aside, the scientists also took into consideration whether children made gestures with specific meanings.
Researchers counted the number of meanings connected specifically with the hand gestures, rather than the total number of gestures. For instance, a baby pointing at a dog ten times would be scored as a single gesture meaning, said Dr. Meredith L. Rowe, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago and a co-author of the study.
The researchers found that the level of gesturing at 14 months was linked to the level of vocabulary at 4.5 years, and that parents who used a wide range of gestures to their children produced the same behavior in their kids. The income and education of parents also played a role. For example, during the first session, the toddlers from high-income families gestured 24 times, to compare with 13 gestures from kids in low-income households. And when both groups were tested for vocabulary skills, the kids from the high-income families scored 117, to compare with 93 in the second group.
The socioeconomic status of the parent or primary caregiver, was taken into account using a scale of 10 to 18 years of education, with 12 years being equivalent to a high-school degree. The average family income of the participants ranged from $15,000 to $100,000 U.S. dollars per year.
"Basically, all of the socioeconomic difference in child gesture can be explained by parent gesture," said Meredith Rowe. "It doesn't mean that children born into a high socioeconomic status family just gesture a lot, it actually depends what a parent does."
It has been known for a long time that parents of higher socioeconomic class talk more to their kids, she says, but this study shows that they also use non-verbal communication differently and that has far-reaching implications for their children's language. Not to mislead anyone, mimic and non-verbal communication has nothing to do with baby sign-language, parents were not formally training their tots. They simply used everyday gestures to point something out or illustrate a concept.
Vocabulary size is a "key predictor" of success when children go to school for the first time, and the primary reason why kids from low-income households are at greater risk of failure than their peers from more advantaged families, Rowe wrote in the paper. "We really need to look at what is going on early on to try and understand why that gap is created by the time children get to school," she says.
Spencer Kelly, a gesture researcher and an associate professor of psychology at Colgate University in New York, said that children from well-to-do families are more likely to live in homes with more objects, such as toys and furniture. As a result, they may "provide more opportunities for parent and child to use gestures when talking about things."
There is also another possibility, such as the children might have more opportunities for interactions and activities with their parents, because there may be fewer children and more free time, Kelly added. "Much research has shown that these sorts of social activities help children learn language."
The research does not prove that children in less privileged families gesture less and, therefore grow up with more limited vocabularies. Nor is every baby destined to follow the general patterns found by the researchers.Though the data is encouraging, the authors said much more research is needed to determine whether it is possible to establish as to how often parents and their children are inclined to gesture, but the potential implications are intriguing. Still, the statistics suggest that a relatively simple change of behavior may ease some of the disadvantages of poverty in young children.
"I think it is promising," Rowe concluded. "It suggests that if we encourage parents to gesture more, children might gesture more."