Typical speech and language development - the importance of gesture.

by ROZ COE MAHons, PGDipClinical Communication Studies, CertTEFLA

Let's look at the typical development of normal speech and language and how gesture fits into it. Gesture is an inherent and instinctive part of our communication process and tuning in to our children's use of gesture can give us a distinct advantage in understanding what they are trying to convey.

The process of learning to talk is a miraculous and complex one. Here I would like to give a brief outline of how this process comes about but more importantly would like to show how gesture naturally fits into the picture, especially in the very early stages. Babies do not typically utter their first words until around about 12 months so how do they get their message across before then and what is the road to speech?

Table (ref 1) (The ages shown are merely a guide – it’s important to note that like other aspects of development, the process of acquiring language is gradual and varies greatly between children). 

2 months

Babies can show a variety of emotions (hunger, anticipation, pleasure, readiness to “play”) via their facial expressions and the movements of their arms legs and fingers.Cooing,  laughter & other sounds of pleasure are heard

2 – 5 months

Vowel sounds appear, and from 12 -24 weeks first consonants are heard. These sounds are learnt through self exploration.(2) Enjoys music . Listens to household sounds and looks at speaker’s lips and mouth to show enjoys listening to speech

4 – 6 months

Child begins to play with sounds for their own sake. This is sometimes called babbling. Early babbling brings pleasure to baby & carer as well as stimulating baby (babbling often occurs more often when babies are alone).  It also practises sound production and perception as baby experiments by moving lips, tongue etc. and listening to the sounds made. (2)

6-10 months

Baby begins to reach for objects: babies love “peek-a-boo” and will show willingness to continue the game (for the hundredth time!) by reaching towards your hand or whatever you are using to hide behind. (3)  Words begin to have some meaning  but this will be very context dependent. Baby begins to respond to some simple requests such as “up you come”.

9 months

Communication becomes increasingly intentional : child may give/ show object as a way to communicate (1) which paves the way for pointing (4). Begins to understand names of familiar objects and people. The baby’s babbling is now produced in longer strings (“bababa mamama”)(5)

12 months

First single words spoken (usually a child’s version of the adult word e.g. “du” for “duck” ). Will understand names of people and objects if in usual context. Beginning to shake head for “No”. Tries to “sing” to music. (5)

9-18 months

Lots of gesture is used to express meaning.  The baby’s understanding is typically in advance of spoken language so he may invent own “signs” to convey meaning (arms up to be lifted etc.)

18-28 months

Gestures & words are often combined

By 24-30 months

Combining 2 words (mummy gone, shoes on ) to express more complex meaning. Beginning to understand sentences with 3 ideas in (Is teddy on Isla’s bed ? as opposed to under Cara’s bed)


When use of 2 word phrases is consistent, 3 word phrases start to appear (e.g. “Cara throw ball”, “throw red ball”)(6)(7)

From 30 - 48 months

Rapid language development. Lots of different parts of speech used e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions


Why is gesture so important?

As you can see from the table, gesture plays a crucial role, expecially in the emergence of verbal language as the child’s use of gesture becomes more sophisticated.

One of the most important aspects of a baby's gesture is what it reveals to us in terms of the child’s thought processes. Symbolic development charts the ability to “symbolise”; that is to be able to think of something and represent it in your mind. The importance of symbolic development cannot be understated: it is a pre-cursor to speech and then literacy : words are symbols of our thoughts. While reading and writing may seem like ions away from this cooing gurgling baby the gesture used can help tell us if the “building blocks” for language are in place.

It is easy to note that a child is beginning to symbolise when they begin to speak : “teddy” might seem a simple enough word but when your child first says (and understands it), she is telling us that she knows what a teddy is, has stored its meaning in her brain and has linked its meaning to the combination of sounds “t – e –d – ee”. She is able to recall these sounds, use all the muscles and speech apparatus necessary to say them and knows that by saying the word “teddy” she is representing that soft brown fluffy toy with one ear! Amazing!

But can we tell what’s going on in that mind before he is able to speak? By paying careful attention to gesture we can. An infant who uses gesture intentionally is showing many of the steps above – he is not yet able to say the word but just by using his gesture for “hat” we know that he has a picture of it in his mind and is able to symbolise.This in turn provides important building blocks for the development of thought (8)

Another important feature of gesture is what it tells the child about the whole communication process. A parent who is in tune with his child’s use of gesture is able to give lots of vital feedback which in turn helps the child understand not only what he and his parent is saying, but begins also to appreciate the whole process of interaction and how enjoyable it is. The first time you and your child have a “conversation” no matter how basic, is such a wonderful experience. Suddenly this gurgling little baby has turned into a person with thoughts and opinions - you have a little window into his mind and both of you are motivated to continue with this positive communication.

So is gesture still important once a child starts to say his first words?

Yes it certainly is! Picture little Katie, at 13 months she has been using the baby sign for “duck” for 3 months now and is beginning to say her first few words. Standing at the kitchen window she points excitedly; “Du! Du!”. Her Gran is sitting at the table. “Duck? Do you see a duck?” (Gran makes the duck baby sign and imagines Katie is pointing to the ceramic duck in the garden.) “No! Du! Du!” This time Katie uses another sign - for “daddy”. “Daddy?” says Gran, “no he’s at…” and through the door walks daddy, home early from work!

A simple exchange but important to Katie – she managed to get her message across to Gran. Gran also realised that she has to pay careful attention to Katie’s speech and gesture so she can understand her and help the communication process along.

Speech sounds remain immature for some time and hearing the correct “model” of what they are trying to say provides important feedback for children beginning to talk. Adults who understand their children's speech can reduce their offspring's frustration immeasurably.

Gesture continues to be important at the one word level, when a child is saying single words (usually names of objects). Research has shown that using gesture at this stage can expand the amount of ideas a child can convey. (9) So a child who can say teddy may be able to convey “Where’s teddy?” and “teddy’s gone” by combining the word “teddy” with gestures for where and gone. The meanings he can now express have increased dramatically which means some of the frustrations of not being able to get his message across will have been eliminated. These types of gesture and word combinations have been shown to precede and encourage the child using two words in combination:(9)

Clearly then, the use of gesture seems perfectly normal and develops alongside speech, probably driving intellectual development also. But can we presume that by encouraging this gesture, by increasing the amount of gesture a baby has available to use we are helping in the same way? In other words do baby signs stimulate language development?

Any parent who has introduced extra gestures (or baby signs) while communicating with their baby could answer that for us but what about the hard facts?

Baby Signing - The Research

The ground breaking research undertaken by pioneers in the field, Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn (10)(11) provided these psychology scholars with interesting results:

A study spanning 2 decades funded by the National Institutes of Health in the USA was devised to look at how baby signing affected children’s linguistic and intellectual development. The study compared 3 groups of 11 month olds: one group whose parents were asked to encourage baby signing (alongside speech) when interacting, one group whose parents were to focus on naming things (verbally) for their baby and one group who had no specific instruction at all. The babies underwent a language assessment at regular intervals up to the age of 3 and were followed up again at age 8. The results were compelling: the tests showed that the baby signers’ language skills were in advance of the non-signers and spoke in sentences sooner. In addition, at three years of age the baby signers were talking like children a full year ahead.

At age 8 the children who had used baby signs scored significantly higher on the IQ test than the non-signers.

They concluded that using baby signs improves language and cognitive ability and that this did not end when babies started to talk, in fact using baby signs has far reaching implications long after the child has stopped using the signs.

Clearly then, gesture is a very natural part of language development and helps communication skills develop. Communication is the essence of being human, it's what distinguishes us from the animal world. Using extra specific gestures (or baby signs) can improve language skills and help babies both with understanding and talking as well as providing both parents and babies with a rich, rewarding first experience of communication.


  1. Bernstein D.K. & Tiegerman E. “Early Communication Assessment and Intervention” in Language and Communication Disorders in Children (Macmillan Publishing Group 1993)
  2. Cooke J., & Williams D. Working with Children’s Language (Winslow Press 1997)
  3. Moore M.K. & Meltzoff, A.N. “Object permanence, imitation, and language development: Toward a neo-Piagetian persective.” In F.D. Minifie & L.L. Lloyd, Communicative and Cognitive Abilities – Early Behavioural Assessment (Baltimore: University Park Press 1978)
  4. Bates, E., Benigni, L., Bretherton, I. , Camaioni, L. & Volterra, V. The Emergence of Symbols: Cognition and Communication in Infancy. (New York:Cambridge University Press 1979)
  5. Ward S. Baby Talk p.73 & P.88 - 100 (Century 2000)
  6. Brown R. A First Language: The Early Stages; (Allen & Unwin, London, 1973)
  7. de Villiers, J & de Villiers P. Language Acquisition (Harvard University Press, USA, 1978)
  8. Doherty-Sneddon, Gwyneth. Children’s Unspoken Language (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003)
  9. 9: Butcher C. & Goldin-Meadow S. “Gesture and the transition from one to two word speech: when hand and mouth come together” in McNeill D. (ed.) Language and Gesture Chapter 12 (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  10. 10: Acredelo L. & Brown C. & Goodwyn S, “Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 24:81-103.
  11. Acredelo L. & Goodwyn S. “The Long- Term Impact of Symbolic Gesturing During Infancy on IQ at Age 8” Paper presented at the meetings of the International Society for Infant Studies, Brighton, United Kingdom (July 2000) 

Just a few of the awards and honours Sing and Sign has received

COPYRIGHT © 2024 Sing and Sign | Privacy Policy

Developed by WK360