Maternal gestures with 20-month-old infants in two contexts

M. O'Neill, Kim Bard, Maggie Linnell, M. Fluck

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Speech directed towards young children (‘motherese’) is subject to consistent systematic modifications. Recent research suggests that gesture directed towards young children is similarly modified (gesturese). It has been suggested that gesturese supports speech, therefore scaffolding communicative development (the facilitative interactional theory). Alternatively, maternal gestural modification may be a consequence of the semantic simplicity of interaction with infants (the interactional artefact theory). The gesture patterns of 12 English mothers were observed with their 20-month-old infants while engaged in two tasks, free play and a counting task, designed to differentially tap into scaffolding. Gestures accounted for 29% of total maternal communicative behaviour. English mothers employed mainly concrete deictic gestures (e.g. pointing) that supported speech by disambiguating and emphasizing the verbal utterance. Maternal gesture rate and informational gesture–speech relationship were consistent across tasks, supporting the interactional artefact theory. This distinctive pattern of gesture use for the English mothers was similar to that reported for American and Italian mothers, providing support for universality. Child-directed gestures are not redundant in relation to child-directed speech but rather both are used by mothers to support their communicative acts with infants.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)352-359
Number of pages8
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2005


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