a boy gesturingChildren begin gesturing before they learn to talk. These gestures can offer clues as to whether children will develop typical language skills, finds a research team from the University of Chicago. The researchers recorded interactions between parents and children. They found that children with brain injuries who used gestures at an early age were more likely to develop typical language skills than children who did not use gestures. The findings could help in developing targeted interventions for children with language delays.

Children from diverse backgrounds were part of the study. The researchers evaluated two groups of children aged 14 months to five years. The first group consisted of 64 families with children who were classified as typical learners. The second group consisted of 40 families with children who suffered a unilateral brain injury before or during birth. Families of various income levels and ethnic backgrounds participated in the study.

The researchers observed the children through video recordings taken in the children’s homes. They recorded interactions between the child and the primary caregiver doing ordinary tasks. There were 12 recording sessions total, taken in 90-minute intervals every four months. The researchers used the recordings to examine how often the children used gestures to communicate and whether parental speech affected the children’s language development.

The researchers observed that early gesturing—gestures that young children use to communicate before learning words—can identify which children with brain injuries are likely to develop typical language and which are likely to have delayed language development. The finding could help clinicians identify children who need early interventions.

“We believe that our findings have implications for prediction and diagnosis of later language deficits and for intervention that may improve language skills,” stated lead study author Susan Goldin-Meadow, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

They also found that parents from more advantaged households spoke with their children more than parents of disadvantaged households, but the researchers observed no difference between the children’s quality of word-learning experiences with their parents.

The analysis also led to several hypotheses about early language development. The researchers posit that early gesturing can increase the size of spoken vocabulary when children start school. They also suggest that when caregivers use diverse vocabulary and complex syntax, it helps children learn.

This research is published in the journal American Psychologist.

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