Journal of Nonverbal Behavior

, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 81–103 | Cite as

Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development

  • Susan W. Goodwyn
  • Linda P. Acredolo
  • Catherine A. Brown


The purpose of the present study was to evaluate the effect on verbal language development of purposefully encouraging hearing infants to use simple gestures as symbols for objects, requests, and conditions. To this end, 103, 11-month-old infants were divided into three groups, all of whom were seen in the laboratory for a variety of assessments, including standardized language tests at 15, 19, 24, 30, and 36 months. Parents of those in the Sign Training group modeled symbolic gestures and encouraged their infants to use them. Parents of infants in the Non-intervention Control group knew nothing about symbolic gestures or our special interest in language development. As a control for “training effects” (i.e., effects attributable to families being engaged in a language intervention program), parents of a second control group of infants (the Verbal Training group) were asked to make special efforts to model verbal labels. After comparisons of the two control groups minimized concerns about training effects, comparisons between the Sign Training and the Non-intervention Control group indicated an advantage for the Sign Training group on the vast majority of language acquisition measures. These results provide strong evidence that symbolic gesturing does not hamper verbal development and may even facilitate it. A variety of possible explanations for such an effect are discussed.


Language Development Training Effect Language Acquisition Verbal Label Standardize Language 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Acredolo, L. P., & Goodwyn, S. W. (1985). Symbolic gesturing in language development: A case study. Human Development, 28, 40–49.Google Scholar
  2. Acredolo, L. P., & Goodwyn, S. W. (1988). Symbolic gesturing in normal infants. Child Development, 59, 450–466.Google Scholar
  3. Acredolo, L. P., & Goodwyn, S. W. (1990). Sign language in babies: The significance of symbolic gesturing for understanding language development. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of Child Development, Vol. 7 (pp. 1- 42). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Google Scholar
  4. Acredolo, L. P., & Goodwyn, S. W. (1992, April). Infant symbolic acquisition in two modalities. Paper presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies, Miami, FL.Google Scholar
  5. Acredolo, L. P., Goodwyn, S. W., Horobin, K. D., & Emmons, Y. D. (1999). The signs and sounds of early language development. In C. Tamis-LeMonda & L. Balter (Eds.), Child psychology: A handbook of contemporary issues (pp. 116–142). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bates, E., Benigni, L. Bretherton, I., Camaioni, L., & Volterra, V. (1979). The emergence of symbols: Cognition and communication in infancy. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bates, E., Bretherton, I., & Snyder, L. (1988). From first words to grammar: Individual differences and dissociable mechanisms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Boyatzis, C. J., & Watson, M. W. (1993). Preschool children's symbolic representation of objects through gestures. Child Development, 64, 729–735.Google Scholar
  9. Diamond, M., & Hopson, J. (1998). Magic trees of the mind. New York: Dutton.Google Scholar
  10. Fenson, L., Dale, P. S., Reznick, J. S., Thal, D., Bates, E., Hartung, J. P., Pethick, S. T., & Reilly, J. S. (1993). The MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories (CDI). San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group, Inc.Google Scholar
  11. Gardner, M. F. (1985). Receptive and Expressive One-Word Picture Vocabulary Test. Novato, CA: Academic Therapy Publications.Google Scholar
  12. Goldin-Meadow, S. (1998). The development of gesture and speech as an integrated system. In J. Iverson & S. Goldin-Meadow (Eds.), The balance between gesture and speech in childhood (pp. 29–44). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  13. Goodwyn, S. W. (1986). Mother-infant interaction and infants' spontaneous symbolic signing. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California at Davis.Google Scholar
  14. Goodwyn, S. W., & Acredolo, L. P. (1993). Symbolic gesture versus word: Is there a modality advantage for onset of symbol use? Child Development, 64, 688–701.Google Scholar
  15. Goodwyn S. W., & Acredolo, L. P. (1998). Encouraging symbolic gestures: A new perspective on the relationship between gesture and speech. In J. Iverson & S. Goldin-Meadow (Eds.), The balance between gesture and speech in childhood (pp. 61–73). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  16. Hedrick, D. L., Prather, E. M., & Tobin, A. R. (1984). Sequenced inventory of communication development, revised edition. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  17. Hodapp, R. M., Goldfield, E. C., & Boyatzis, C. J. (1984). The use and effectiveness of maternal scaffolding in mother-infant games. Child Development, 55, 772–781.Google Scholar
  18. Huttenlocher, J., Haight, W., Bryk, A., Seltzer, M., & Lyons, T. (1991). Early vocabulary growth: Relation to language input and gender. Developmental Psychology, 27, 236–248.Google Scholar
  19. Messinger, D. S., & Fogel, A. (1998). Give and take: The development of conventional infant gestures. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 44, 566–590.Google Scholar
  20. Nelson, K. (1973). Structure and strategy in learning to talk. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 38 (1- 2, Serial No. 149).Google Scholar
  21. Nicoladis, E., Mayberry, R. I., & Genesee, F. (1999). Gesture and early bilingual development. Developmental Psychology, 35, 514–526.Google Scholar
  22. OReilly, A. W. (1995). Using representations: Comprehension and production of actions with imagined objects. Child Development, 66, 999–1010.Google Scholar
  23. Schlesinger, H. S., & Meadow, K. P. (1972). Sound and sign: Childhood deafness and mental health. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  24. Simonds, R. J., & Scheibel, A. (1989). The postnatal development of the motor speech area: A preliminary study. Brain and Language, 37, 42–58.Google Scholar
  25. Snyder, L., Bates, E., & Bretherton, I. (1981). Content and context in early lexical development. Journal of Child Language, 8, 565–582.Google Scholar
  26. Studdert-Kennedy, M. (1991). Language development from an evolutionary perspective. In N. Krasnegor, D. Rumbaugh, R. Schiefelbusch, and M. Studdert-Kennedy (Eds.), Language acquisition: Biological and behavioral determinants (pp. 5–28). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  27. Tomasello, M., & Farrar, J. (1986). Joint attention and early language. Child Development, 57, 1454–1463.Google Scholar
  28. Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Werner, H., & Kaplan, B. (1963). Symbol formation. New York: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  30. Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89–100.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc. 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susan W. Goodwyn
    • 1
  • Linda P. Acredolo
    • 2
  • Catherine A. Brown
    • 3
  1. 1.Psychology DepartmentCalifornia State UniversityStanislaus
  2. 2.Psychology DepartmentUniversity of California at DavisDavis
  3. 3.Department of Communicative DisordersSan Diego State UniversityUSA

Personalised recommendations