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Running title: Key issues in language development
Gestures and some key issues in the study of language development
Marianne Gullberg1, Kees de Bot2, & Virginia Volterra3
1 Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, 2 Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 3 Istituto di Scienze
e Tecnologie della Cognizione, CNR
In Gesture, 8(2), Special issue Gestures in language development, eds. M. Gullberg & K. de
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
PO Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The purpose of the current paper is to outline how gestures can contribute to the study of
some key issues in language development. Specifically, we (1) briefly summarise what is
already known about gesture in the domains of first and second language development, and
development or changes over the life span more generally; (2) highlight theoretical and
empirical issues in these domains where gestures can contribute in important ways to further
our understanding; and (3) summarise some common themes in all strands of research on
language development that could be the target of concentrated research efforts.
Keywords: first language, second language, development, acquisition, ageing
We gratefully acknowledge support from the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk
Onderzoek (NWO) for a grant awarded to Kees de Bot and Marianne Gullberg to fund an
International Workshop, "Gesture in Language Development", held at Rijksuniversiteit
Groningen, the Netherlands, April 20-22, 2006. We also thank Adam Kendon for helpful
comments and discussions.
In recent years the scope of studies on language development has broadened from a fairly
narrow focus on lexical and syntactic aspects at the sentence level to an interest in structures
and processes at higher levels such as discourse and the interaction with other semiotic
systems in communication. In parallel, studies on communication systems across modalities
have provided growing empirical evidence supporting the view that gestures are a mode of
expression tightly linked to language and speech (e.g. Goldin-Meadow, 2003; Kendon, 2004;
McNeill, 1992, 2005). Gestures are spatio-visual phenomena influenced by contextual and
socio-psychological factors, and also closely tied to sophisticated speaker-internal, linguistic
processes. Under this view of speech and gesture as an inter-connected system, the study of
gestures in development and the study of the development of gestures are natural extensions
of research on language development, be it phylogenetically, ontogenetically, or during the
lifespan of an adult. Moreover, given their properties and dual role as interactive, other-
directed vs. internal, speaker-directed phenomena, gestures allow for a fuller picture of the
processes of language acquisition in which the learner’s individual cognition is situated in a
social, interactive context.
The role of gestures in language development can be studied from various perspectives:
(1) Gestures as a medium of language development. We can examine the role gestures play
in interaction to mediate the acquisition of spoken language, their general role in
communication, in establishing the socio-cognitive prerequisites for the development of
language, in conveying and possibly entrenching meaning, and their connection to cognitive
capacities such as working memory, etc.
(2) Gestures as a reflection of language development. We can further investigate the way in
which gestures develop and change in parallel to spoken language development, and the
ways in which they shed light on both the product and process of language acquisition.
(3) Gestures as language development itself. This approach studies the acquisition of
gestures as an expressive system in its own right.
Traditionally the term language development has implicitly focused only on the
gradual growth or progression of a first or second language towards the (idealised) stable
model of an adult or native system. However, phenomena such as decline or regression in
ability are clearly related (see papers in Viberg & Hyltenstam, 1993). For instance, regression
as attested in attrition, or language loss, in adoptees, ageing bilinguals, and immigrants who
stop using their first language, seems to affect the lexicon and grammar in similar ways as in
progression. Not all shifts in ability lead to loss, however. Bilingual speakers may experience
a decline in ability in one language when not using it without this leading to ungrammaticality.
Moreover, they regain the ability when the language is brought back to use. Shifts in
language dominance due to usage highlight the dynamic nature of language abilities.
Development can thus usefully be seen not only as a linear process of progression, but as a
complex, dynamic process that encompasses growth, decline, and any shift in both in first
and second languages (de Bot, 2007; de Bot, Lowie, & Verspoor, 2005). We will use the term
development in this more general sense of change throughout.
The purpose of the current paper, then, is to outline how gestures can contribute to
the study of some central issues in language development. Specifically, we aim to (1) briefly
summarise what is already known about gesture in the domains of first and second language
development, and development over the life span more generally; (2) to highlight theoretical
and empirical issues in these domains where gestures can contribute to further our
understanding; and (3) to summarise some common themes in all strands of research on
language development that could be the target of concentrated research efforts.
Gesture and language
In the contemporary gesture literature arguments are made for viewing gestures, language
and speech as intimately linked or as forming an 'integrated system', an audiovisual
'ensemble', or a 'composite signal', depending on the theoretical approach (Clark, 1996;
Engle, 1998; Kendon, 2004; McNeill, 1998). The arguments for integration come both from
studies of language production and comprehension. First, in production, gestures have been
found to fill linguistic functions like providing referential content to deictic expressions (this
wide), filling structural slots in an utterance ("GIVE! [gesture: 'the book'], Slama-Cazacu, 1976:
221), and acting as or modifying speech acts (e.g., Bühler, 1934, Slama-Cazacu, 1976;
Kendon, 1995, 2004). Second, the observed semantic-pragmatic and temporal co-ordination
between speech and gesture lies at the heart of all theories and models concerning the
relationship. Although the precise relationship between the modalities is not entirely
straightforward, particularly with regard to meaning and co-expressivity, there is a general
consensus that gesture and speech express closely related meanings selected for expression
(see de Ruiter, 2007; Kendon, 2004; Holler & Beattie, 2003 for overviews). A third argument
for integration is that speakers deliberately distribute information across both modalities
depending on spatial and visual properties of interaction (e.g. Bavelas, Kenwood, Johnson, &
Phillips, 2002; Holler & Beattie, 2003; Melinger & Levelt, 2004; Özyürek, 2002a). Finally, a
fourth frequent argument is that gestures and speech develop together in (first) language
acquisition (e.g. Mayberry & Nicoladis, 2000; Volterra, Caselli, Capirci, & Pizzuto, 2005), and
that they break down together in disfluency, in aphasia, etc. (e.g. Feyereisen, 1987; Lott,
1999; McNeill, 1985). This last argument is further discussed in the papers in this volume.
In language comprehension, there is considerable evidence that gestures affect
perception, interpretation of and memory for speech (Beattie & Shovelton, 1999; Graham &
Argyle, 1975; Kelly, Barr, Breckinridge Church, & Lynch, 1999; Riseborough, 1981). Further
to this, recent neurocognitive evidence shows that the brain integrates speech and gesture
information, processing the two in similar ways as speech alone (e.g. Bates & Dick, 2002;
papers in Özyürek & Kelly, 2007; Wu & Coulson, 2005). Overall, then, there is good reason to
consider gestures, language and speech as a closely-knit system.
The models attempting to formalise the relationship between gestures and speech differ
in their views of the locus and the nature of the link. As suggested by Kendon (2007) some
see speech as primary and gesture as auxiliary. Others regard gestures and speech as equal
partners. The first set either considers gestures to facilitate lexical retrieval (the Lexical
Retrieval Hypothesis, Krauss, Chen, & Gottesman, 2000) or views gestures as instrumental in
the process of representing and packaging imagistic thought for verbalisation (the Information
Packaging Hypothesis, Alibali, Kita, & Young, 2000; Freedman, 1977). The second set of
theories regards gestures as an integral part of an utterance. Beyond this starting-point, they
differ in focus. Either they concentrate on gestures as a window on (linguistic and non-
linguistic) thought (the Growth Point Theory, McNeill, 1992, 2005; McNeill & Duncan, 2000),
or they target the interplay between imagistic and linguistic thinking (the Interface Hypothesis,
Kita & Özyürek, 2003), or, finally, they centre on the communicative intention driving both
modalities to form a deliberately coherent multimodal utterance (De Ruiter, 2000, 2007;
Kendon, 1994, 2004; Schegloff, 1984). All existing accounts model the adult stable system.
No theory has yet undertaken to account for development either in children or in adults.
Gesture and first language development
The field of First Language Development (FLD) has a long-standing interest in gestures.
Infants’ gestures have traditionally primarily been explored as relevant features of a
prelinguistic stage, as behaviours that precede and prepare the emergence of language,
identified exclusively with speech. More recently, the view of adult language as a gesture-
speech integrated system has prompted the need to understand how the gesture-speech
relationship is established in infancy and how it evolves towards the adult system.
The earliest development
Infants begin to communicate intentionally through gestures and vocalisations and later with
words (see Lizskowski, Stefanini et al., this volume). Gestures and speech are equal partners
– in the majority of cases the communicative signals produced by children are expressed in
both modalities, gestural and vocal. A key question is whether the two modalities are
integrated from the very beginning, or are initially separate to become an integrated system
only with development (McNeill, 1992, 2005). Some studies indicate that the gestural and
vocal modalities are semantically and temporally integrated form the earliest stages (Capirci,
Contaldo, Caselli, & Volterra, 2005; Iverson & Thelen, 1999; Pizzuto, Capobianco, &
Devescovi, 2005), while others report that asynchronous combinations of gestures and words
are more frequent than synchronous ones in an initial developmental period (Butcher &
Goldin-Meadow, 2000; Goldin-Meadow & Butcher, 2003).
Despite these differences, all agree that deictic gestures appear before the end of the
first year and that they fulfil the basic function of drawing the interlocutor’s attention to
something in the environment. These gestures include REQUESTING (extending the arm toward
an object, location or person, sometimes with a repeated opening and closing of the hand),
SHOWING (holding up an object in the adult’s line of sight), GIVING (transferring an object to
another person) and POINTING (index finger or full hand extended towards an object, location,
person or event). The referents of these gestures can be identified only in the physical
context in which communication takes place.
Around 12 months children start to produce other more content-loaded types of
gestures, referring, like first words, to action schemes usually performed at this age with or
without objects (e.g. bringing the handset or an empty fist to the ear for TELEPHONE/PHONING.
Some gestures refer to action schemes that are non-object-related (e.g. moving the body
rhythmically without music for DANCING to request that music be turned on) or to conventional
actions (waving the hand for BYE-BYE) with forms more arbitrarily related to their meaning. The
terminology used for these gestures (“conventional”, “referential,” “symbolic”, “iconic”,
“characterising“, “representational”) is variable, and has changed considerably over the years,
even in the work of the same author(s), reflecting changes both in methodology and
theoretical perspectives. The communicative function of such gestures appears to develop
within routines similar to those considered to be fundamental for the emergence of spoken
language. Their forms and meanings are established in the context of child–adult interaction.
The first gestures and the first words involve the same set of concerns: eating, dressing,
exchange games, etc, and they are initially acquired with prototypical objects, in highly
stereotyped routines or scripts. At roughly parallel rates, they gradually “decontextualise” or
extend out to a wider and more flexible range of objects and events.
The role of input
The remarkable similarities between production in the gestural and the vocal modalities
during the first stages of language acquisition raise interesting issues regarding the
communicative and linguistic role of early words and gestures. Symbolic actions produced in
the gestural modality have often been seen as communicative and referential irrespective of
the contexts of use (for a discussion, see Caselli, 1994). Around 13 months there is a basic
equipotentiality between the vocal and the gestural channels (Erting & Volterra, 1990).
Differences in the type of input to which children are exposed influences the extent to which
the manual or spoken modality is used for representational purposes and assumes linguistic
properties. For example, children systematically exposed to sign language input acquire and
develop a complete language in the visual gestural modality (see Schick, Marschark, &
Spencer, 2006). Comparisons between deaf and hearing children suggest that all children,
regardless of whether their primary linguistic input is spoken or signed, use gestures to
communicate, in particular in the transition stage to symbolic communication (Volterra,
Iverson, & Castrataro, 2006). Although the relationship between gesture and sign language in
general and in development has received little attention to date, recent research suggests
that gesture is as an essential part of sign language as it is of spoken communication
(Emmorey, 1999, Liddell, 2003).
Typically developing children are clearly encouraged by parents to rely much more on
vocal symbols for communication. However, it has been suggested that gestural input may
facilitate the acquisition of spoken words, as in the case of “baby signs” or 'enhanced
gestures' used in conjunction with speech (Goodwyn & Acredolo, 1998; Goodwyn, Acredolo,
& Brown, 2000). A possible explanation for this effect, found also in children with
developmental disorders, is that exposure to enhanced gesturing provides children with
opportunities to master new forms in both the vocal and manual modalities (Abrahamsen,
Culture and adult input may influence both the form and the frequency of
representational gestures. Many studies have reported more frequent production of
representational gestures by Italian children who are immersed in a 'gesture-rich' culture (see
the discussion in Kendon 2004, Ch. 16). In particular, the representational gestures produced
by Italian children include numerous object/action gestures (e.g., EATING, PHONING) and
attributive gestures (e.g., BIG, HOT), whereas American children almost exclusively produce
conventional gestures (e.g., HI, YES, ALL GONE) (Iverson, Capirci, Volterra, & Goldin-Meadow,
in press). Cross-cultural longitudinal studies of spontaneous interaction should reveal how
similarities and differences in the way object/action gestures versus more conventional social
The relationship between speech and gesture
Interesting findings on the relationship between children’s production of action and gestures
and early (receptive and expressive) word repertoires have been collected through the
MacArthur Bates Communicative Development Inventory (MBCDI). This is an instrument
designed to explore and assess typically developing children’s early communicative and
linguistic development (Fenson et al., 1993). In particular, it has been shown that there is a
complex relationship between early lexical development in comprehension and production,
and action-gestures (Caselli & Casadio, 1995). Around 11-13 months, the productive
repertoire of action-gestures appears to be larger than the vocal repertoire, but in the
following months the mean number of words and action-gestures are more similar. More
interestingly, at this early age there is a significant correlation between words comprehended
and action-gestures produced (Fenson et al., 1994). These findings suggest that the link
between real actions, actions represented via gestures, and children’s vocal representational
skills may be stronger than has been assumed thus far.
Another important finding is that in all cultures investigated to date the first utterances
(combinations of two or more meaningful communicative elements) are crossmodal. Various
studies highlight that deictic gestures (notably POINTING) play a special role in two-element
utterances. Combinations of a POINTING gesture with a representational word are the most
productive types of child utterances. These gesture-speech combinations can refer to a single
element or to two distinct elements. Complementary and supplementary gesture-speech
combinations reliably predict the onset of two-word combinations, underscoring the
robustness of gesture as a harbinger of linguistic development (Butcher & Goldin-Meadow,
2000; Capirci, Iverson, Pizzuto, & Volterra, 1996; Iverson et al., in press; Iverson & Goldin-
Meadow, 2005). Many constructions (e.g., predicate+argument like “POINT (to chair) saying
“mommy” to ask mommy to sit on the chair) appear in supplementary gesture-speech
combinations several months before the same construction appears in speech (e.g., ”sit
mommy” or “mommy sit”). The production of a supplementary deictic gesture-word
combination appears early, whereas supplementary representational gesture-word or two-
word combinations, which require the child to retrieve two symbols each conveying a different
piece of semantic content, appear later. The production of a single word and identification of
another referent in the context through a deictic gesture supposedly places fewer cognitive
demands on the child than the combination of two representational elements and presumably
fit the child’s current cognitive capacities (Özcaliskan & Goldin-Meadow, 2005).
The study of children with atypical input or development can further illustrate how
gesture appears to be related to cognitive and linguistic development in infancy. An example
of how gesture may compensate for specific impairments of the spoken abilities is children
with Down syndrome (DS). The neuropsychological profile of DS children is characterised by
a lack of developmental homogeneity between cognitive and linguistic abilities. The linguistic
abilities of DS children are poorer than expected based on their overall cognitive level (e.g.
Chapman & Hesketh, 2000). These children appear to compensate for poor productive
language abilities through greater production of gestures. There is ample evidence that the
gap between cognition and productive language skills becomes progressively wider with
development among DS children (Chapman, 1995; Franco & Wishart, 1995). However, with
increasing cognitive skills and social experience these children also develop relatively large
repertoires of gestures (Caselli et al., 1998; Stefanini, Caselli, & Volterra, 2007, Stefanini,
Recchia & Caselli, this volume). The compensatory use of gesture can be enhanced,
particularly if children are encouraged through the provision of signed language input (cf.
Abrahamsen, 2000). Higher gesture rates associated with speech difficulties have also been
reported for other clinical populations such as children with specific language impairment
(Evans, Alibali, & McNeil, 2001; Fex & Månsson, 1998).
Given that gestures usage appears to be related both to the general cognitive level and to
phono-articulartory abilities, it is important to examine children in later childhood and at
different stages of linguistic development. The development whereby children’s gestures
become organised into the adult speech-gesture system have not been fully described. Very
few studies have explored the development of this system after the two-word stage when
other types of gestures, such as 'rhythmic' or 'emphatic' gestures, start to appear. Mayberry &
Nicoladis (2000) followed 5 French-English bilingual boys longitudinally (from 2 years to 3;6
years), showing that children from age 2 onwards largely gesture like adults with regard to
gesture rate and meaning. Interestingly, different gesture types developed differently such
that the use of iconic and beat gestures correlated with language development, whereas the
use of pointing gestures did not. Children between 16 and 36 months use gestures and
speech in agreement and refusal constructions with their mothers somewhat differently from
adults (e.g. Guidetti, 2005). Looking at more sophisticated language use, children from 4 to 5
years productively use idiosyncratic, content-loaded gestures during narratives (McNeill,
1992). Colletta (2004), recording adult-child spontaneous interactions, has described the
development of conversational abilities in school-age children. Younger children produce very
few metaphoric, abstract deictic gestures and beats, which become more frequent in the
production of older children.
Finally, research investigating gesture production in school-aged children in problem-
solving tasks, reasoning about balance or mathematical equivalence, indicates that children
convey a substantial proportion of their knowledge through speech-accompanying gestures
(Alibali & Goldin-Meadow, 1993; Church & Goldin-Meadow, 1986; Pine, Lufkin, & Messer,
2004). In some cases children’s gesture-speech 'mis-matches' predict learning. Children
whose speech and gestures 'mis-match' are more likely to benefit from instruction than
children whose speech and gestures match. These studies indicate that gestures can reveal
not only what children are thinking about but also their learning potential.
In sum, even if differences in data sets (e.g. ages considered, gesture types
described), in methodology and terminology make it challenging to compare findings across
studies, the available data suggest that the role of gesture in spoken language acquisition
and development changes according to different stages and communicative/interactional
contexts. Around one year of age gesture plays a crucial role in the construction and
expression of meaning. In the following stages gesture production develops together with
speech. At later stages still, gesture production appears to decrease in some linguistic
contexts (e.g. naming tasks) although it is frequent with speech in others (e.g. narratives).
These findings together indicate that any study on the development of language should
include and pay particular attention to gestures.
Gesture and second language development
In recent years the interest in the relationship between gestures and Second Language
Development (SLD or L2D) has grown considerably. Studies suggest that gestures play an
important role in SLD and should be seen both as a resource in learning and as a component
of language proficiency in its own right (cf. Gullberg, 2006b, 2008; Gullberg & McCafferty, in
press). Again, if gestures and speech are seen as an integrated system, then factors that play
a role in SLD in general may also play a role in the development of gesture, and conversely,
gestures may provide further information on the effects of such factors. Therefore, a large
part of the SLD research agenda is also relevant for gesture where a number of traditional
topics can fruitfully be addressed taking gestures into account.
Cross-linguistic influences (CLI) or transfer
One of the most widely studied aspects of SLD is cross-linguistic influence, that is, the impact
of existing languages on the acquisition and use of new ones. Traditionally this research has
been concerned with the effect of the first language (L1) on later learned languages, but
research on lexical processing in bilinguals and research on language attrition and language
loss has shown that later learned languages may influence the first language (Cook, 2003;
Costa, 2005; de Bot & Clyne, 1994; Köpke, Keijzer, & Weilemar, 2004; van Hell & Dijkstra,
2002). Recent studies have also demonstrated an impact of the L2 on the L1 in gestures (e.g.
Brown, 2007; this volume; Brown & Gullberg, in press; Pika, Nicoladis, & Marentette, 2006).
A growing body of work suggests that native speakers of typologically different
languages, such as English on the one hand, and Spanish and Turkish on the other, gesture
differently, both in terms of gestural form and timing, as a reflection of how these languages
encode and express meaning components of motion like path and manner (e.g. Duncan,
1994; Kita & Özyürek, 2003; McNeill, 1997; McNeill & Duncan, 2000; Özyürek, Kita, Allen,
Furman, & Brown, 2005). Further studies have also shown that L2 learners of these
languages do not necessarily gesture like target language speakers, but display traces of
their L1s in their gesture production either in terms of timing, aligning their gestures with
different elements in speech than native speakers (e.g. Choi & Lantolf, in press; Kellerman &
van Hoof, 2003; Negueruela, Lantolf, Rehn Jordan, & Gelabert, 2004; Stam, 2006), or in
terms of gestural forms, expressing different semantic content in gestures than native
speakers (e.g. Brown, 2007; Brown & Gullberg, in press; Gullberg, submitted; Negueruela et
al., 2004; Özyürek, 2002b; Yoshioka & Kellerman, 2006). Such findings are often discussed
in terms of Slobin's notion of 'thinking for speaking' (e.g. Slobin, 1996), that is to say, ways in
which linguistic categories influence what information you attend to and select for expression
when speaking. The argument for L2 is that L1-like gesture patterns may reveal whether L2
speakers continue to think for speaking in the L1 rather than in L2-like ways.
A number of questions need to be addressed in this domain. A crucial issue concerns
how to identify and study gestural practices typical of a given language and culture. It is a real
difficulty that so little is known about language-specific gesture patterns in terms of frequency,
gestural forms, use of gesture space, and semantic expression. An absolute prerequisite for
the study of CLI in gestures in L2 is therefore a better understanding of gestural practices
across languages in native performance. Currently, any study on L2 behaviour is a triple
study where the native behaviour in both source and target language needs to be described
before learner behaviour can be considered. If gestures and L2 studies are to follow in the
steps of general SLD research, effects of other known languages (L3, Ln) should also be
taken into account, pushing the boundaries even further.
It is equally important to point out that in contrast to the traditional focus on 'errors' in
SLD (see papers in Richards, 1974; van Els, Extra, van Os, & Janssen van Dieten, 1984), a
different approach is necessary when considering gestures in L2 production. Since there can
be no absolute 'grammaticality' of gesture performance, preferential usage patterns must
instead be established with corresponding gradient native scales of appropriateness or
acceptability. For instance, Duncan (2005) examined 20 native English speakers retelling a
cartoon and found that 64% of the manner gestures coincided with manner verbs, while 33%
of the manner gestures were linked to other elements such as ground or path. In contrast, 20
Spanish speakers engaged in the same task aligned only 23% of their manner gestures with
manner verbs, while 58% coincided with ground or path elements. The range of variation
defines what is 'nativelike' and allows for an equal range of possible behaviours for L2
learners that would still qualify as 'nativelike'. This opens for a more gradient and
sophisticated view of L2 performance in general beyond the narrow domain of target-like
CLI effects have mainly been studied looking at representational (iconic) gestures. It
is unknown whether effects of CLI can be found for other types of gesture practices. For
instance, given that gestures supposedly align with speech rhythms and language-specific
prosodic patterns, it seems plausible that rhythmic patterns of gesturing will transfer into an
L2 along with a foreign accent. Similarly, it is possible that cross-linguistic differences in ways
of managing interaction might transfer into an L2 in the use of interactive and 'pragmatic'
gestures (e.g. Bavelas, Chovil, Lawrie, & Wade, 1992; Kendon, 2004). To date, no study has
examined these issues.
The studies of L2 gestures occasionally display dissociation between surface form
and gesture whereby L2 learners say one thing (in L2-like fashion) and gesture another (in
L1-like fashion) (e.g. Özyürek, 2002b; Stam, 2006). In most studies gesture is more
conservative than speech, such that speech seems to change more readily towards the L2
target than gestures. This phenomenon is mainly interpreted as indicating transfer of L1
representations, perspectives, or thinking for speaking. However, similarly to the study of CLI
in spoken language, to determine whether a particular phenomenon is caused by CLI/transfer,
or whether it is a general learner phenomenon, requires methodological triangulation (cf.
Jarvis, 2000). At the very least, it is necessary to examine learners from two different source
languages learning the same target language to tease apart such effects.
Further, very few attempts have been made to theoretically account for the fact that
L2 speakers do and say different things, an L2-specific form of speech-gesture discrepancy.
A question that arises is what representations actually underpin L2 surface forms, especially
when these look target-like but gesture does not, and why it should be that speech changes
before gesture. Do gestures have a privileged link to conceptual representations relative to
speech? How dissociated can speech and gestures be and still be said to reflect the same
A different set of questions pertains to how gestures that seem not quite target-like
from a native speaker’s point of view are perceived by native speakers. The inclusion of
gesture in assessments of L2 speakers expands the number of dimensions along which
learners' production can vary relative to native speakers. In this sense, gesture data raise
important questions concerning the 'native speaker standard' (cf. Davies, 2003), crucial in
many studies of SLD. The discussion of critical periods for language learning and the degree
to which adult learners can become nativelike is central to theories of adult L2 acquisition (cf.
Birdsong, 2005). Gestures definitely raise the stakes for learners. However, no studies have
systematically examined native perception of 'foreign gesture', nor its potential interactional
consequences. Although a number of studies show that learners' gesture production affect
assessments positively such that learners are deemed more proficient if they gesture than if
they do not (Gullberg, 1998; Jenkins & Parra, 2003; Jungheim, 2001; McCafferty, 2002), no
studies so far have directly tested for effects of 'foreign gesture'.
Gesture and learner-general phenomena
SLD research does not restrict explanations of properties of the L2 to effects of the L1 or
other languages learned. SLD studies also look at learner behaviour as a systematic and
regular variety in its own right, as an interlanguage (Selinker, 1972), with properties
determined both by general learning mechanisms and by the specific languages involved.
Again, in such a perspective, a number of issues arise where gestures might provide
important insights. One such issue concerns how language learners handle different types of
difficulties at a given proficiency level, such as managing lexical, grammatical, and discourse
related problems at the same time in real time. The analysis of gestures and speech in
conjunction provides a fuller picture of such problem-solving. For instance, studies of
Moroccan and Japanese learners of French show how learners move from using mainly
representational gestures, complementing the content of speech, towards more emphatic or
rhythmic gestures related to discourse (Kida, 2005; Taranger & Coupier, 1984). This suggests
a transition from essentially lexical difficulties and lexically based production to more
grammatical problems related to discourse. More careful charting of what gestures are
produced by learners with particular proficiency profiles has potential pedagogical and
The acquisition of gestures can and should also be studied in its own right. Just as
we need to find out how children come to gesture in adult-like and culture-specific ways, so
we need to know whether L2 learners ever come to like native speakers. Although some
attention has been given to L2 users' comprehension of conventional or quotable gestures
('emblems) (e.g. Jungheim, 1991; Mohan & Helmer, 1988; Wolfgang & Wolofsky, 1991),
nothing is known about whether L2 learners ever produce such culture-specific gestures,
which may show the same acquisition difficulties as idiomatic expressions (e.g. Irujo, 1993).
For instance, do L2 learners learn to produce appropriate gestural forms such as
distinguishing the HEAD TOSS from the HEADSHAKE (Morris, Collett, Marsh, & O'Shaughnessy,
1979), do they learn to POINT in culturally appropriate ways (see papers in Kita, 2003), and do
they learn to respect handedness taboos (e.g. Kita, 2001)? Even less is known about whether
L2 learners acquire and produce language-specific non-conventionalised gestural practices. If
they do, this raises important questions about implicit learning of both form and meaning,
crucial to the domain of SLD. If they do not, it raises familiar SLD issues about why learners
do not notice or 'take in' certain aspects of the input despite extended exposure (e.g.
Robinson, 2003). It is perhaps particularly interesting to consider visual phenomena like
gestures since they are often assumed to be inherently 'salient', and to have an attention-
directing, enhancing effect in their own right. If they did, they should be easy to acquire. Again,
next to nothing is known about this question.
A closely related issue is what might be learnable and indeed teachable (and
therefore assessable) in terms of gesturing. While it may be possible to teach forms and
meanings of emblems, it is much less clear that other aspects of gestural practices are
teachable. Even when gestures are on the classroom agenda, an explicit link is seldom made
between language and gesture. Furthermore, research in this domain should consider the
possible differences and similarities between spontaneously produced gestures and gestures
explicitly deployed for teaching purposes (e.g. Lazaraton & Ishihara, 2005; Tellier, 2006). It is
possible that features noted for 'instructional discourse' like child- or foreigner-directed
gestures share properties with gestures employed in language classrooms. A further step is
to consider learners’ interpretations of teachers’ gestures rather than examining teachers’
gestures in social isolation (cf. Sime, 2006). Answers to questions concerning learnability and
teachability are wide-open.
Gesture across the lifespan
Under the view that language development encompasses all shifts, a number of further
domains become relevant such as the development of rhetorical styles and registers, but also
language attrition in bilinguals, and changes in language related to ageing. Changes in
language can of course also be related to disease, as in aphasia, split-brain surgery, etc., but
we leave those changes aside in this overview (but see e.g. Feyereisen & de Lannoy, 1991;
Goodwin, 2002; Lausberg, Zaidel, Cruz, & Ptito, 2007; Lott, 1999; Rose, 2006).
With regard to the development of rhetorical styles and gestures, something is known
about the development of narrative skills and concomitant changes to gesture in later
childhood (cf. section 3). For instance, Cassell (1988) demonstrated that children's production
of beats becomes adult-like only with increasing development of narrative skills, specifically
when children can alternate between different narrative levels. Very little is known, however,
about the development of other rhetorical skills such as gestures in different registers,
sermons, public speeches, etc. Although a small literature explores politicians' gesture
practices (e.g. Calbris, 2003), the focus is typically on the accomplished speaker, not on the
development of the speech-gesture repertoire.
In the domain of language attrition due to immigration or bilingualism, nothing at all is
known about gesture practices. Assuming that gesture and speech are connected, it seems
plausible that the gesture practices might also be affected if skills in the spoken first language
are lost. However, given that gestures can also be recruited for other purposes, it is an
empirical question whether this happens or not.
Gestures and ageing
A recent overview of research on gestures over the lifespan suggests that there is very little
research on gestures in older age groups (Tellier, to appear). There is a substantial body of
research on non-verbal communication and ageing, and some of these studies have also
considered gesture use and interpretation (Montepare & Tucker, 1999). The perspective
taken is often a compensatory one. That is, communication problems emerge with age due to
a decline in speech-motor skills and hearing. The assumption is that these problems are
compensated for by gesturing (e.g. Cohen & Borsoi, 1996; Feyereisen & Havard, 1999).
There are several problems with this approach. First, the decline of speech production in
ageing is not well-established. Second, any decline seems to be co-affected by variables
such as continuous use of the language and level of education. Third, the groups considered
are typically fairly young (60s and early 70s) and comparisons between age groups are cross-
sectional. Age-related language problems are more likely in the 75+ age group, in particular
when there are other health problems and the level of education is low (de Bot & Makoni,
2005). Finally, there is considerable variation within and between age groups. So a simple
young/old comparison may not be informative.
It is possible that there are specific age-related types of gesturing, probably more due
to specific motor patterns than to language issues. For instance, the control of small
movements may be reduced, leading to larger movements. It is also possible that with
decreasing flexibility of joints, changes in spinal curvature, etc., there is a reduction in gesture
size, gesture speed, etc. (cf. Laver & Mackenzie Beck, 2001). Both changes may be given
(un-intended) semiotic importance by onlookers. The field of gestural practices in ageing is
The preceding sections have briefly outlined some of what is known about gestures and
language development, with some emphasis on questions that remain open to investigation in
each domain. There are, however, clearly general themes that are common to all studies of
language development and gesture.
The role of gestures in the input
In studies on language development the precise role of input, that is, what language users
hear and see, is hotly debated. Both in studies of FLD and SLD a familiar debate concerns
whether input is simply a trigger of innate knowledge and structures (Pinker, 1989; Wexler &
Culicover, 1980; White, 2003), or whether language development is based on detailed
properties of the input such as frequencies and on usage (Ellis & Larsen-Freeman, 2006;
Tomasello, 2003, and cf. section 3). In SLD the role of input is debated partly because L2
learners seem not to attend to what is in the input, namely 'correct' pronunciation, grammar,
etc., as seen in their tendency to maintain foreign accents and grammatical peculiarities even
after many years of teaching and exposure.
A well-known hypothesis states that a prerequisite for input to be useful to learning is
that it is comprehensible (e.g. the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis, Krashen, 1994).1 In this
perspective, gestures seem to play an important role. Interlocutors are known to attend to and
make use of gestural information, for instance, to improve comprehension in noise (Rogers,
1978). It is also clear that gestures in the input can improve learning in general such as the
learning of maths and symmetry (Singer & Goldin-Meadow, 2005; Valenzeno, Alibali, &
Klatzky, 2002). A natural assumption is therefore that gestures that convey speech-related
meaning should improve language learners’ comprehension and possibly also learning of
language. Indeed, adults, teachers and other 'competent' speakers seem to think so. All
forms of didactic talk or ‘instructional communication’ studied - whether by adults to children
('motherese') or by adult native speakers to adult L2 users ('foreigner/teacher talk', Ferguson,
1971) - is characterised by an increased use of representational and rhythmic gestures (e.g.
Adams, 1998; Allen, 2000; Iverson, Capirci, Longobardi, & Caselli, 1999; Lazaraton, 2004).
However, few studies test actual effects of language learning. There is some evidence that
gestures improve the learning of new adjectives in English children (O'Neill, Topolovec, &
Stern-Cavalcante, 2002). Very few studies empirically test the connection between gestural
input and learning outcomes in SLD (for exceptions, see Allen, 1995; Sueyoshi & Hardison,
2005; Tellier, this volume). Moreover, facilitative effects of gestures may differ depending on
the linguistic units tested and be more evident for lexical than grammatical material (e.g.
Musumeci, 1989). Different types of gesturing may also have different effects. Again, all these
issues remain wide open. It is also an empirical question to what extent children and adult
learners mirror the gesture input in their own gesture production.
A related question is to what extent learners affect their own input by their spoken
and gestural practices in interaction. It has been suggested that learners' gestures might help
promote positive affect between learner and adult/native speaker, which might ultimately
promote learning (e.g. Goldin-Meadow, 2003; McCafferty, 2002). It has also been suggested
that adult and native listeners in general tailor their production to learners based on the
learners' gestures (e.g. Goldin-Meadow, 2003). This is in line with the well documented
observation that interlocutors synchronise or accommodate to each other in interaction also
as regards gestures (Bavelas, Black, Chovil, Lemery, & Mullett, 1988; Condon & Ogston,
1971; Kimbara, 2006; Wallbott, 1995). It is an open question to what extent such
synchronisation might affect language learning (cf. discussions of structural priming as a
means of learning, e.g. Bock & Griffin, 2000; Branigan, Pickering, & Cleland, 2000).
The role of gestures in the output
The complementary notion also plays a role in development, namely that production is crucial
to acquisition. Bruner (1983) suggested that (first) language is learned through use and a
similar notion is present in the 'output hypothesis' in SLD. This states that new language
knowledge only becomes automatised if used for production (Gass & Mackey, 2006; Swain,
2000). In a parallel fashion, it has been shown that the production of gestures promotes
learning of other skills, such that adults and children who gesture while learning about maths
and science do better than those who do not (Alibali & DiRusso, 1999). General recall also
improves when participants enact events (e.g. Frick-Horbury, 2002). Evidence for an effect of
gesturing on the acquisition of language is again much scarcer. Although it has been
suggested that gesturing might help L2 learners internalise new knowledge on theoretical
grounds (Lee, in press; McCafferty, 2004; Negueruela et al., 2004), and although teaching
methods relying on embodiment exist (e.g. Total Physical Response, Asher, 1977), it remains
an empirical question whether any real, long-term learning effects can be demonstrated for
gesture production in L1 or L2 (for short-term effects in L2, see Tellier, 2006).
Variation and individual differences
All language development is characterised by individual variation. First language
development is relatively uniform - at least regarding final outcome - in comparison to SLD,
which is characterised by highly variable outcome. In SLD the effect of a range of psycho-
social factors have been explored, such as intelligence, language aptitude, memory capacity,
attitudes, motivation, personality traits, and cognitive style (e.g. de Bot et al., 2005: 65-75;
Dörnyei, 2006; Verspoor, Lowie, & van Dijk, 2008). For instance, intelligence matters more in
tutored than in untutored SLD, and more in grammar learning than in other skills. The
correlations between language aptitude tests and free oral production and general
communicative skills are generally low. Working memory capacity seems to be lower
generally in L2 than in L1 (Miyake & Friedman, 1999), etc. No study of such factors in SLD
has to date considered gestures either as a co-variable or as a measure of any of the factors
despite the fact that the influence of some of these factors on gestures has been extensively
studied. For instance, effects of personality and psychological types (e.g. introvert vs.
extrovert) on nonverbal behaviour has received a lot of attention (see Feyereisen & de
Lannoy, 1991 for an overview), verbal vs. spatial fluency (Hostetter & Alibali, 2007), etc., have
been documented. However, no studies have combined these perspectives although a
number of possible links can be hypothesised.
Recent studies have suggested that gestures help reduce cognitive load (e.g. Goldin-
Meadow, Nusbaum, Kelly, & Wagner, 2001; Wagner, Nusbaum, & Goldin-Meadow, 2004).
Such an effect would be important in L2 production (cf. Gullberg, 2003, 2006a) where
individual differences in working memory and proficiency might conspire to make such effects
more important. A key expansion on the hitherto rather uninformative observations that L2
learners gesture more in the L2 than in the L1 would be to examine the relationship between
fluency, processing units, and gesture production more closely in these terms. For instance,
at stages where L2 learners are not very fluent and proceed almost word by word, they seem
to produce one gesture for every unit/word. Once they start stringing together more material
in chunks, the gesture rate also goes down (Gullberg, 1998, 2006a; Nobe, 2001). This
suggests a possible link between working memory, fluency and gesture production.
Similarly, individual differences in cognitive style and personality affect interaction
patterns and thereby the extent to which L1 and L2 learners create situations of rich input for
themselves (cf. Goldin-Meadow, 2003). While this has been examined in FLD, no studies to
date have explored such issues in SLD.
Finally, there is inter- and intra-individual variation in adult, native gesturing,
depending on social setting, degree of formality, shared knowledge, ambiguity, expertise, the
content of speech, etc. Many aspects of individual variation in adult, native gesturing are not
well understood, such as why some speakers gesture more than others, and why the same
speaker sometimes chooses to gesture and sometimes not (Kendon, 1994). To qualify the
possible range of behaviours in adult native speakers while allowing for variation is crucial to
studies of language development and gesture. Rather than looking at behaviour outside of
the 'typical' as 'noise' in the data, a more productive approach is to look at variation as a
meaningful source of information. This is not to say that we need to explain every single
instance of a deviation from a general pattern. As in other areas of language development,
variation is a reflection of the developmental process resulting from the interaction of many
internal variables that cannot be taken apart to study the impact of each individual factor (van
Dijk & van Geert, 2005; Verspoor et al., 2008). Studies of gestures and language
development will have to be methodologically creative to find ways of taking variation into
Gesture as compensation
In many parts of the language development literature, a general and often tacit assumption is
that children and adults alike produce gestures mainly to overcome the gap between their
communicative intentions and the expressive means at their disposal. That is to say, gestures
are viewed as a compensatory mode of expression. However, the theoretical issues
underlying such a view are rarely discussed. First, compensation as a notion is often ill- or
undefined. For instance, spoken language acquisition research shows that not all learner
behaviour is best characterised as strategic problem-solving. Children and adult learners all
over-generalise, not as a means of compensation, but as part of the developmental process.
Furthermore, adult learners are often communicatively fluent in an L2 even though their
systems do not look like those of native speakers. Conversely, not all difficulties are overt.
Learners may avoid difficulties by changing their intention when the expressive means do not
match. The general difficulties involved in identifying and defining compensatory behaviour
has received attention in SLD studies (see papers in Kasper & Kellerman, 1997), but much
less so in studies of FLD, and are virtually absent from studies considering gesture as
A related issue relevant both to acquisition and gesture studies is the question
whether compensation is intended for the speaker or for the addressee. That is, is it a
speaker-internal solution to a problem, an interactional solution, or both? These questions
echo familiar debates in the gesture literature regarding gesture production (cf. the
input/output distinction above), but they are equally relevant for developmental, compensatory
issues (e.g. Gullberg, 1998).
A third question concerns what parts of spoken language gestures can compensate
for. The focus has traditionally been on lexis and meaning, but lexical access, grammar,
discourse, conceptualisation, and problems of linearising global information have all been
implicated in gestural compensation (Alibali et al., 2000; Gullberg, 1999, 2006a; Hostetter,
Alibali, & Kita, 2007; Pine, Bird, & Kirk, 2007).
Finally, of theoretical relevance for gesture studies is the question how gestures can
compensate for linguistic expressions, and how compensatory gestures are defined and
function. In adult, 'competent' users, the speech-gesture integration is multifaceted and may
not be obligatory and automatic. 'Competent' speakers can choose to decouple speech and
gesture. This raises important questions about co-expressivity, however that is defined.
Gestures that express non-redundant meaning from speech are not typically considered
'compensatory' in cases of mature, adult native speakers, whereas such instances are often
seen as compensatory in developing speakers. Further, a number of familiar questions in the
debate on gesture production could be cast in terms of compensation, such as whether
gestures help lexical retrieval (activate word forms) (Krauss et al., 2000), or help with
conceptualisation or information packaging (Goldin-Meadow, 2003; Kita, 2000), However,
surprisingly, these theoretical notions are rarely touched upon in discussions of
'compensatory' gestures in development (for notable exceptions, see Nicoladis, 2007;
Nicoladis, Mayberry & Genesee, 1999). Although there are exceptions in the literature on
children's development, notably the literature on 'mis-matches' (e.g. Goldin-Meadow, 2003)
and on lexical access in children (e.g. Pine et al., 2007), even these studies do not typically
discuss explicitly what defines some gestures as compensatory. In studies of adult L2 users'
gestural behaviours, theoretical discussions of gestural compensation are almost entirely
absent. The properties that make some gestures compensatory and others not need to be
discussed and elucidated if we are to form a better understanding of the role of gesture in
In sum, the notion of compensation raises important theoretical issues both for
studies of language development and for gesture studies. We need to consider how and
when to view the function of gesture as mainly compensatory, to formulate independent
defining criteria, etc. (e.g. Goodwin & Goodwin, 1986). Developmental data that raise
important issues for compensation are to be seen in the context of theories concerning the
relationship between speech and gesture. Conversely, developmental studies may need to be
more specific about their view of how gestures can serve compensatory functions.
Conclusions and introduction to this issue
The issues regarding language development and gesture raised in this review are far from
exhaustive. A range of other questions can be asked, with regard to methodology, to
interaction, and concerning the relationship between language, gestures, and culture. Are
some types of gesture related to characteristics of the language system while others are more
cultural (e.g. gesticulation vs. emblems) and if so, what does that mean for the parallel
development of the two modalities? Is there anything in culture-specific communication that
affects the emergence and use of gestures, such as the presence of semi-conventionalised,
recurrent hand shapes (see Kendon, 2004)? How does lack of contact with a language and
culture affect gesture use? Are there differences in gesture practices between tutored and
untutored learners? What is the gestural behaviour of early simultaneous bilinguals? How
might learners use gestures to express group affiliation (e.g. Efron, 1972)? Can
language development and gesture be modelled together?
The papers in this special issue span both first and second language development.
They all exemplify how studies of language development can gain insights from taking
gestures into account. The first two papers focus on first language development. Lizskowski's
paper examines the gestures of pre-linguistic infants who have not yet developed their first
language. He reviews and assesses what is known about pointing and other representational
gestures. The paper re-evaluates current findings and takes a new stance, upgrading the role
of pointing and downgrading the role of representational gestures in infants, thereby re-
assessing the role of such gestures for the emergence of human communication.
The second paper by Stefanini, Recchia, & Caselli focuses on the relationship
between gesture production and spoken lexical capacity in children with Down syndrome
compared to typically developing children. Drawing on data from a naming task, the authors
show that, although children with Down syndrome do not differ quantitatively in gesture
production from developmentally-matched controls, they do differ qualitatively in the
distribution of information across the modalities. The study sheds important light on the ways
in which gestures come into play when cognitive abilities outstrip productive spoken language
In the transition between first and second language studies, Tellier's paper
investigates the popular assumption that gestures improve the acquisition of a new word in a
foreign language by looking at French children who are taught English. The study compares
the effect of seeing vs. both seeing and producing gestures. The results indicate that
(producing) gestures affects the productive retention of new vocabulary. The study thus lends
support to the notion that gestures are implicated in learning language specifically, not only
learning in general.
In the domain of adult second language development, the paper by Yoshioka
examines how adult Dutch learners of Japanese construct narrative discourse in speech and
gesture. In particular, the paper investigates how learners deal with crosslinguistic differences
in how entities are referred to, for instance by lexical means (e.g. the frog, it) or by ellipsis.
The results show that learners display both general and target language-specific means of
structuring information in discourse in the two modalities. In this sense, the study adds to the
evidence suggesting that gestures reflect language-specific speech patterns. It also
contributes to the study of crosslinguistic influence in SLD.
Brown investigates the interaction between first and second languages in adult
speakers, specifically comparing the use of character- and observer-viewpoint in English and
Japanese. Japanese speakers with some knowledge of English gesture differently in their
native language from Japanese speakers without any knowledge of English, showing patterns
similar to those of monolingual English speakers. Although traditionally only the effect of the
L1 on the L2 has been considered in studies of SLD, this paper interestingly suggests that the
L2 might also affect the L1. This perspective has important implications for what is considered
the native standard in studies of language development.
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Kees de Bot received his PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Nijmegen. He is
chair of Applied Linguistics and Director of the Research School for Behavioral and Cognitive
Neuroscience at the University of Groningen. His main interest is in the application of
Dynamic Systems theory to second language development and bilingual processing.
Marianne Gullberg received her PhD in Linguistics from Lund University, Sweden. She is a
staff member at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, the Netherlands. Together with
Dr A. Özyürek she has launched and heads the Nijmegen Gesture Centre. Her research
targets second and first language acquisition and use, with particular attention to implicit
learning, semantics and discourse, and the production and perception of gestures.
Virginia Volterra received her "laurea" in Philosophy from the University of Rome La Sapienza
in 1971. She is Research Director of the Italian National Research Council, associated with
the Institute of Cognitive Science and Technology. Her research focuses on the early stages
of language acquisition in children with typical and atypical development. She has also
conducted pioneering studies on Italian Sign Language (LIS).
1 For an overview of critiques of this hypothesis, see Ellis, 1994: 273-280.