Pointing and Naming Are Not Redundant: Children Use Gesture to Modify Nouns Before They Modify Nouns in Speech

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Abstract

Nouns form the first building blocks of children’s language but are not consistently modified by other words until around 2.5 years of age. Before then, children often combine their nouns with gestures that indicate the object labeled by the noun, for example, pointing at a bottle while saying “bottle.” These gestures are typically assumed to be redundant with speech. Here we present data challenging this assumption, suggesting that these early pointing gestures serve a determiner-like function (i.e., point at bottle + “bottle” = that bottle). Using longitudinal data from 18 children (8 girls), we analyzed all utterances containing nouns and focused on (a) utterances containing an unmodified noun combined with a pointing gesture and (b) utterances containing a noun modified by a determiner. We found that the age at which children first produced point + noun combinations predicted the onset age for determiner + noun combinations. Moreover, point + noun combinations decreased following the onset of determiner + noun constructions. Importantly, combinations of pointing gestures with other types of speech (e.g., point at bottle + “gimme” = gimme that) did not relate to the onset or offset of determiner + noun constructions. Point + noun combinations thus appear to selectively predict the development of a new construction in speech. When children point to an object and simultaneously label it, they are beginning to develop their understanding of nouns as a modifiable unit of speech.

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