Study Looks at if Using Signs May Slow Language Learning

An international team led by Jana Iverson of the University of Pittsburgh, compared language learning between Italian children and American children, after first determining that Italian children do grow up using more gestures.  The study found that American children consistently use more words, and combine words more often.  The difference, however, was accounted for by the larger use of gestures in the Italian children.

The main implication seems to be this – gestures don’t slow language learning, and they don’t negatively impact one’s ability to communicate within a society in which everyone uses a lot of gestures.  As someone who works with young children with language impairments, I’ve seen a lot of practicioners encouraging the use of signs in children that weren’t verbally communicating.  This gnawed at me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly until reading Cogntive Daily’s excellent summary of this study.  Teaching signs rather than oral language does not necessarily inhibit a child’s ability to learn language, but it does inhibit a child’s ability to communicate to others that don’t use signs.  This is not a problem in Italy where gesture use is the norm, but it does imply that in the U.S. where the norm is not to use signs, that for a child struggling to learn language, the use of gestures should only occur as an absolute last resort.