The gesture is an act that appears very early in the child and precedes what will later be verbal communication. In general we can divide the gestures into deictic (the act of indicating) e iconic (try to imitate something).

Classical theories on the development of communication divide deictics into two groups:

  • Imperatives (when the child points to ask)
  • Declarations (when the child points to share emotions and experiences).

According to the American psychologist Michael Tomasello (The origins of human communication) this view is very reductive. In fact, in a series of experiments he highlights how the child is don't limit yourself to requests to satisfy, but expects the adult to share the emotion he feels towards an object; moreover, gestures can often refer to absent objects and events, going well beyond the immediate request for something visible. These phenomena, which may seem negligible, instead they emphasize the possession of extremely important skills on the part of the child: the search for joint attention, the awareness of the knowledge and expectations of the other, the creation of common ground.


For the American author, therefore, there are gods cognitive prerequisites the use of the finalized gesture which, in fact, would be physically possible for the child to perform from the very first months of life, but which is used consciously by the child around 12 months

And the iconic gestures? Although they are more complex from a cognitive point of view and therefore appear later, they tend to decline rapidly around 2 years of age. The main cause is the emergence of verbal language which replaces the imitative gesture: when we learn a word, we stop making the pantomime of the object to which the word refers; after all, using words is much easier and cheaper. On the contrary, the deictic gesture persists for a longer time, even when the first words appear. In a first phase, in fact, it integrates language (the child can say a word - for example a verb - by associating it with a gesture), and ultimately it never disappears completely. Much more often than we think, in fact, we adults also indicate a contact person nearby to reinforce or supplement what we are saying verbally.

To learn more: Michael Tommasello, The origins of human communication, Milan, Cortina Raffaello, 2009.

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