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The Resilience of Language and Gesture
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Susan Goldin-Meadow is the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Comparative Human Development, and the Committee on Education at the University of Chicago. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked with Rochel Gelman and Lila Gleitman. Her research is two-pronged: (1) The home-made gestures, called homesign, that profoundly deaf children create when not exposed to sign language. Homesign offers us insight into the skills that children themselves bring to language learning, and into the linguistic properties that conventional sign languages are likely to have had at the earliest stages of their creation. (2) The gestures hearing speakers around the globe spontaneously produce when they talk. These co-speech gestures provide insight into how we talk and think. Professor Goldin-Meadow has served as a member of the language review panel for NIH, has been a Member-at-Large to the Section on Linguistics and Language Science in AAAS, and was part of the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development sponsored by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine and leading to the book Neurons to Neighborhoods. She is a Fellow of AAAS, APS, APA (Divisions 3 and 7), and LSA, and was president of the Psychology Section of AAAS in 2015. In 2001, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a James McKeen Cattell Fellowship, which led to her two published books, Resilience of Language and Hearing Gesture. In 2005, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2015, she received the William James Award for Lifetime Achievement in Basic Research from APS.


Imagine a child who has never seen or heard any language at all. Would such a child be able to invent a language on her own? Despite what one might guess, the answer to this question is "yes". I have studied children who are congenitally deaf and cannot learn the spoken language that surrounds them. In addition, these children have not yet been exposed to sign language, either by their hearing parents or their oral schools. Nevertheless, the children use their hands to communicate––they gesture––and those gestures take on many of the forms and functions of language. The properties of language that we find in the deaf children's gestures are just those properties that do not need to be handed down from generation to generation, but rather can be reinvented by a child de novo. They are the resilient properties of language, properties that all children, deaf or hearing, come to language-learning ready to develop.

In contrast to these deaf children who are inventing a language with their hands, hearing children are learning language from a linguistic model. But they too produce gestures. Indeed, all speakers gesture when they talk. These gestures are associated with learning, they can index moments of cognitive instability, and they reflect thoughts not yet found in speech. Indeed, these gestures can do more than just reflect learning––they can be involved in the learning process itself. Encouraging children to gesture not only brings out ideas that the children were not able to express prior to gesturing, but can also teach children new ideas not found anywhere in their repertoire, either spoken or gestured.

Gesture is versatile in form and function. Under certain circumstances, gesture can substitute for speech, and when it does, it embodies the resilient properties of language. Under other circumstances, gesture can form a fully integrated system with speech. When it does, it both predicts and promotes learning.

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