Origins of the human pointing gesture: A training study

Danielle Matthews, Tanya Behne, Elena Lieven, Michael Tomasello

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Despite its importance in the development of children’s skills of social cognition and communication, very little is known about the ontogenetic origins of the pointing gesture. We report a training study in which mothers gave children one month of extra daily experience with pointing as compared with a control group who had extra experience with musical activities. One hundred and two infants of 9, 10, or 11 months of age were seen at the beginning, middle, and end of this one-month period and tested for declarative pointing and gaze following. Infants’ ability to point with the index finger at the end of the study was not affected by the training but was instead predicted by infants’ prior ability to follow the gaze direction of an adult. The frequency with which infants pointed indexically was also affected by infant gaze following ability and, in addition, by maternal pointing frequency in free play, but not by training. In contrast, infants’ ability to monitor their partner’s gaze when pointing, and the frequency with which they did so, was affected by both training and maternal pointing frequency in free play. These results suggest that prior social cognitive advances, rather than adult socialization of pointing per se, determine the developmental onset of indexical pointing, but socialization processes such as imitation and adult shaping subsequently affect both infants’ ability to monitor their interlocutor’s gaze while they point and how frequently infants choose to point.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)817–829
    Number of pages13
    JournalDevelopmental science
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2012


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