Children's use of mime shows how language develops

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Young children instinctively use a ‘language-like’ structure to communicate, according to psychologists.

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Children in the study used mime to describe actions without speaking

Research led by the University of Warwick has examined how four-year-olds, 12-year-olds and adults used gestures to communicate in the absence of speech.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, asked participants to watch on-screen animations of an action, such as jumping or rolling, and then to use their hands to mime the action without speaking.

The researchers examined whether the direction of travel and manner of motion were expressed simultaneously in a single gesture or expressed in two separate hand movements.

The results suggested that gestures used by young children tended to segment information into separate movements more than the other age groups.

According to the researchers, this approach reflects the way that language expresses complex information, that is, by breaking it down into units (such as words), which can then be strung together into sequences (such as phrases or sentences).

Dr Sotaro Kita, from Warwick’s Department of Psychology, said, ‘Compared to the 12-year-olds and the adults, the four-year-olds showed the strongest tendencies to break down the manner of motion and the path of motion into two separate gestures, even though the manner and path were simultaneous in the original event.

‘This means the four-year-olds’ miming was more language-like, breaking down complex information into simpler units and expressing one piece of information at a time. Just as young children are good at learning languages, they also tend to make their communication look more like a language.’

The researchers believe the study provides insight into why languages of the world have universal properties.

Dr Kita added, ‘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.’