a boy smilingHow do young children communicate complex ideas? Research from the University of Warwick in England investigated how people communicate when they are not allowed to speak. They found that when children use gestures to communicate, they segment their message into smaller pieces, unlike older children and adults. The findings suggest that human language, which is segmented into small sections like words and sounds, may be influenced by young children’s communication preferences.

The researchers examined the non-verbal communication strategies of four-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and adults for the study. The participants watched animations of motion events like a smiling square or a circle jumping up a slope. Then, they had to communicate what they saw to other participants. They used their hands to mime their message without speaking. The researchers analyzed the gestural communication to determine whether the participants communicated multiple ideas in a single gesture or if they used multiple gestures to get their message across.

According to the results, the four-year-olds had the most “language-like” communication, compared to the 12-year-olds and the adults. The children broke the information they wanted to communicate into smaller units and expressed their message one idea at a time.

The researchers conclude that children are not simply learning language by copying the people around them, but that children have innate preferences regarding language: they simplify language by segmenting it into manageable pieces. The findings may explain why languages have universal properties.

“All languages of the world break down complex information into simpler units, like words, and express them one by one. This may be because all languages have been learned by, therefore shaped by, young children. In other words, generations of young children’s preference for communication may have shaped how languages look today,” explained Dr. Sotaro Kita of Warwick’s Department of Psychology, who led the study.

This research is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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