Whether it's Baby Mozart or reading poetry while pregnant, we’re always looking for ways to give our kids a leg-up when it comes to mental development. Having a good vocabulary, being able to use and understand more words and therefore, sentences and ideas, is particularly important.
Children pick up language from the adults around them. Research has shown that parents who speak to their kids more tend to have kids with better vocabularies. But non-verbal language plays a role, too, a new study has found. The more we “talk” with our hands – using gestures to express meaning – the easier it is for children to understand and pick up new words and ideas.
The researchers asked 218 parents to watch video clips of other parents talking to their children, who were between 14 and 18 months old. The sound in the clips had been muted, and a beep occurred at a specific point – for example, if a parent was asking her child if he’d like to pick out a book to read, the beep might occur during the word “book.” Based on how accurate the viewers’ guesses were, the team was able to determine the quality of the parent’s hand gestures.
The researchers found that parents offered clues with their hand gestures between 5% and 38% of the time. Interestingly, the quality of the parents’ gestures was not directly related to how much they talked to their kids, which suggests that quantity and quality are not one and the same when it comes to speech.
The more we “talk” with our hands – using gestures to express meaning – the easier it is for children to understand and pick up new words and ideas.
Perhaps the most interesting finding was that the more gesture-filled the parent’s speech, the better the kids’ language skills were at four and a half years old, the time they were just about ready to begin school. This suggests that using gestures not only helps kids pick up language when they’re very young, but the advantage stays with them as they get older, which may help them in school.
Socioeconomic class didn't seem to play a role in the impact of hand gestures on vocabulary. “What was surprising in this study was that social economic status did not have an impact on quality. Parents of lower social economic status were just as likely to provide high-quality experiences for their children as were parents of higher status,” said co-author Susan Goldin-Meadow. This was a bit unexpected since previous studies have shown higher socioeconomic class linked to more parental conversation and better language in the kids.
The authors do believe that based on sheer odds, however, parents who talk more to their children are also more likely to use hand gestures in the process. The authors write, “parents who talk more are, by definition, offering their children more words, and the more words a child hears, the more likely it will be for that child to hear a particular word in a high-quality learning situation. ” For example, if you say the word “window” 10 times instead of one, odds are you’ll gesture towards it at some point in the process.
For parents who naturally tend to talk with their hands, the news is encouraging — keep doing what you’re doing, since it will help your kids pick up meaning. For those who don’t naturally use hand gestures so much, you may want to try adding them consciously when you speak to your child. And as always, no matter your background or level of education, the more you talk with your kids, the better it will serve them, whether they’re toddlers, teens, or adults.
The study was carried out by a team at the University of Chicago, and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.