Gesture and word: a strong and changing partnership by Olga Capirci


Gesture and word: a strong and changing partnership

Gesture and word: a strong and changing partnership

Olga Capirci
Senior Researcher Institute for Cognitive Sciences and Technologies (ISTC)
National Research Council (CNR) Italy

Gesture is a robust feature of communicative development whose importance has been firmly established by more than 30 years of research: all children, regardless of their hearing status or the modality of the linguistic input to which they are exposed, make use of gestures to communicate. However, the relationships between gestures and words are not stable over time: they vary in relation to developmental stages. In the last decades, an increasing number of scholars have shown the relevant role played by gesture in the psychological-cognitive processing of content and in the construction of discourse. The tight link recognized between speech and gesture in both processes has led Kendon (2004) to speak of a speech-gesture ensemble and McNeill (2005) to consider them as two aspects of the same underlying thought process: gesture is part of language, and language itself is considered a gesture-speech integrated system. Acts of speaking and gesturing are bound to each other in time at a general level, and the extremely close synchrony between gesture and speech indicates that the two operate as an inseparable unit, reflecting different semiotic aspects of the cognitive structure that underlies them both. The relationship between language and gesture is compatible with recent discoveries regarding the shared neural substrates of speech and meaningful actions that have been likened to gestures in work developed in Rizzolatti’s laboratory, (Rizzolatti & Sinigallia, 2010). The current resurgence of interest across disciplines and theoretical perspectives provides the possibility to better explore the tight link between gestural motoric and spoken linguistic representation in young children. A clear continuity from prelinguistic to linguistic form emerged: between actions, gestures and spoken words. But how children’s gestures become organized into the adult speech-gesture system?New studies, analyzing more advanced stages of children’s linguistic-communicative development, demonstrate that gestural productions do not decrease with the emergence of speech nor with its further development until school-age (and adult age); rather, the gestures change in terms of types, function, and relations (semantic and temporal) with the co-referential words. Furthermore, they are strictly dependant on the different contexts of observation (spontaneous play, naming tasks, narration).