Infant Language Development
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 modelled 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.
Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development
A view of the child as a preformed adult endowed with special linguistic input and output devices is giving way to a view of the child as a creature equipped with ears and eyes and with various moving parts that can be harnessed to form the sounds and sights of its species communicative signals (Studdert-Kennedy, 1991, p. 89)
For many years the phrase "language development" was used almost exclusively in reference to the development of verbal language. A child's first words were touted by parents and researchers alike as marking the onset of the ability to represent concepts symbolically and use symbols for the express purpose of communicating with others. More recently, based in part on increasing appreciation of the ground-breaking theoretical work of Werner and Kaplan (1963), researchers have taken a closer look at the precursors of verbal language with an eye toward delineating the steps by which children gradually become proficient in using arbitrary symbols to stand for real-world phenomena. One of their most thought-provoking ideas is the notion that the development of representational ability requires children to tolerate greater and greater "distancing" of the symbol from the referent. For example, the use of an onomatopoetic symbol (e.g., "woof") to symbolize the sound that dogs make is not quite as "distant" from the referent as the more arbitrary symbol, "barking." The latter makes greater cognitive demands on the child because the relationship...