Many children show late language development in the early years. Depending on the measurement, previous studies have found that between 8 and 15 % of 2-3 year old children show late language production, many of whom are at risk of persistent problems. Much research has therefore been aimed at examining associations between children's early non-verbal communication and their language development, in order to identify early language delays in children in need of follow-ups.
This study was based on mothers' reports of children's communication and language from the Norwegian Mother and Child Study, and included 42,517 children at 18 months and 28,107 of the same children at 3 years.
Language development and non-verbal communication
The researchers found that the strongest verbal marker for late language development was poor language comprehension at 18 months. The strongest non-verbal marker was the late use of imitative actions—actions that imitate parental expressions and actions. Pointing gestures, which are used to obtain something or show interest in something, had no unique predictive impact on late language development in this age period.
"The result that imitative actions are more important than pointing gestures can be interpreted in several ways," says Imac Maria Zambrana from the Division of Mental Health.
"Pointing gestures are thought to reflect the ability of children to more generally communicate intentional messages, while imitative actions can be more related to a growing capacity that children develop at this age to represent what they experience symbolically, both by non-verbal and verbal means," explains Zambrana.
Symbolic representations are essential to language
Given that symbolic representations are essential for forming meaning in language, Zambrana and her colleagues believe the results reflect a developmental link between non-verbal and linguistic abilities that is related to symbolic representational skills in this age period.
"If the focus on symbolic representational skills, expressed both non-verbally and linguistically, may help identify risk for language delay as early as 18 months, these findings may have practical implications for work on early identification of children in need of follow-ups, as well as increasing our understanding of language development in children more generally," says Zambrana.
Zambrana, I. M., Ystrom, E., Schjølberg, S. and Pons, F. (2012), Action Imitation at 1½ Years Is Better Than Pointing Gesture in Predicting Late Development of Language Production at 3 Years of Age. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01872.x