A prelinguistic gestural universal of human communication

Cogn Sci. May-Jun 2012;36(4):698-713. doi: 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01228.x. Epub 2012 Feb 3.


Several cognitive accounts of human communication argue for a language-independent, prelinguistic basis of human communication and language. The current study provides evidence for the universality of a prelinguistic gestural basis for human communication. We used a standardized, semi-natural elicitation procedure in seven very different cultures around the world to test for the existence of preverbal pointing in infants and their caregivers. Results were that by 10-14 months of age, infants and their caregivers pointed in all cultures in the same basic situation with similar frequencies and the same proto-typical morphology of the extended index finger. Infants' pointing was best predicted by age and caregiver pointing, but not by cultural group. Further analyses revealed a strong relation between the temporal unfolding of caregivers' and infants' pointing events, uncovering a structure of early prelinguistic gestural conversation. Findings support the existence of a gestural, language-independent universal of human communication that forms a culturally shared, prelinguistic basis for diversified linguistic communication.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Caregivers
  • Child Development*
  • Cognition*
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Gestures*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language Development*
  • Male
  • Nonverbal Communication*
  • Parent-Child Relations*