Engaging with babies' simple gestures helps develop language, finds study

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Researchers have found that responses to babies' first gestures have a direct effect on their language development.


According to the University of Manchester, which carried out the research, babies begin to  communicate earlier than many people assume through simple gestures, such as holding up objects to show or share and pointing. However, these actions are often undetected or overlooked by caregivers.

It found that engaging with this ‘sharing and giving behaviour’, in particular by talking to babies about the things they are showing an interest in, helps their language development.

The research is based upon observations of ‘sharing and giving behaviours’ in 24 10-month-olds.

In the first part of the study, designed to encourage pointing, babies were held on their mother’s hip and walked along a row of interesting objects hanging from the ceiling. In the second part of the study, the holding and giving behaviours of the babies, who were sat opposite their parents and given two sets of toys to play with, were observed.

Professor Elena Lieven, director of the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD), at the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster, said, ‘Our research demonstrates that babies may be doing more to communicate than many of us usually assume, and at an earlier age. Many people think that a child’s first word is the most important milestone in learning to speak, but first gestures have a direct effect on language development.’

She added, ‘Most parents and caregivers are often puzzled by the intentions behind children’s ‘sharing and giving’ behaviours, despite them being widespread. However, by understanding these early behaviours, caregivers have a great opportunity to help support children’s later language development.

‘We found that talking to babies about the things they’re showing an interest in helps their language development. The ability to share and direct attention is an essential basis for typical language development. Previous studies have shown that in children on the autism spectrum this ability is impaired.’

Professor Lieven and her colleagues will be sharing the results of the study at the ESRC’s flagship annual Festival of Social Science next Wednesday (9 November) at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. The event includes a number of sensory play sessions for babies and their parents.

  • For more information about the ESRC's festival e-mail Helen Allwood
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