Infant pointing and naming

Pointing is not just pointing to refer to something. It is significant because it creates a triangle between you, the baby, and the object.

For example, when a baby holds an object, like a rattle, you talk about it to her/him without pointing. The baby would only focus on the rattle he's holding or focus on you. She/he doesn't create a triangle that involves you, him/her, and the rattle.

By the time, the baby can point, she/he can draw you into what she/he is interested in. It creates a triangle.

Deixis (noun), deictic (adjective): Of, relating to, or denoting a word or expression whose meaning is dependent on the context in which it is used, e.g., here, you, me, that one there, or next Friday.

A researcher in a 12-month longitudinal study in Spain videotaped interactions of 1- and 2-year-old (hearing) children with their non-signing mothers in their homes. The findings were as follows:

When those children at between 12 months and 24 months pointed at an object, they also vocalized like "ga."

At about 18 months, pointing is combined with a word such as "doll" or "horse."

At about 21 months, the children pointed along with the deictic words such as "there", "that", "this", and "here."

At around 24 months, the children would combine the object's name plus the deictic word. E.g. "That's a tree."

Pointing is prevalent across ages. A range of the purpose of pointing is from localization (to specify a direction, distance, and location) to early language development (to specify an object to be named).

Pointing and use of deictic in ASL is no different. I will observe Juli's deictic usage in ASL in the next months and years.

A study case

(0;11,3) Juli's father, holding her in his arm, pointed to the image and vocally said "That's mama." He redirected her pointing toward me as I stood next to them. He told her, "That is mama."

Next thing Juli responded by pointing at the image. Then she redirected and maintained her pointing finger toward me. It looked like an imitation but it never occurred to me that she imitated.

Combining gestural pointing with a word

Juli (at 11;4) just began to combine gestural pointing with a signed word.

At 1;0,2, Juli's pointing to a named picture began to emerge. When I asked Juli "Where is the apple?", she pointed at the apple in the picture book.

Gestural vs linguistic pointing

Note that gestural or communicative pointing is not linguistic (e.g. pronouns). Pronominal pointing is linguistic, which may emerge at around 18-20 months or so -- the same stage or milestone as in spoken language. Classical reversal errors which emerge at this stage are crucial indicator; that is how researchers discovered in sign language acquisition in signing children.

Despite that fact that linguistic pointing (e.g. pronouns) in ASL is transparent or iconic for adults, signing toddlers don't acquire pronouns in ASL earlier than speaking toddlers. Linguistic and gestural aspects process different in the brain.

Gestural pointing typically emerges at about 9 months in both hearing and signing children, regardless of modality. Keep it in mind that it's gestural, not linguistic (e.g. pronominal pointing in ASL) which will briefly explain a difference shortly.

Gestural pointing first emerged for direction just before the baby Juli turned 9 months old. Then at 9 months, Juli pointed to pictures, objects, and such for names or words in ASL.

In this last month of her first year, gestural pointing became more developed such as multi-pointing, pointing to persons, and combining gestural pointing with ASL words. Gestural pointing with a spoken word is a typical milestone at around 12 months or first birthday. This milestone is no exception in sign language.


Anne Baker, Bencie Woll. Sign language acquisition. Pp 41-43.

Marianna Hatzopoulou. "The Emergence of Pronominal Pointing in Greek Sign Language."

Dan Isaac Slobin. The Cross Linguistic Study of Language Acquisition: Theoretical issues, Volume 2. Pp. 895-896

Dr. Laura Pettito. "On the autonomy of language and gesture: Evidence from the acquisition of personal pronouns in American Sign Language"

This documentation project follows a baby's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, week by week from gazing at birth to manual babbling, to first words just before the first birthday in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.

The second-year and third-year documentation continues to follow the same child's language and phonological acquisition and literacy development in ASL on a weekly basis from the one-word stage to two-word and multiple utterances.

The documentary continues to follow the same child's ASL language and literacy development on a regular basis from age three to four. It surveys ASL phonological acquisition and more complex utterances.

These posts on ASL-English bilingualism, language acquisition, and bilingual education may be of an interest for parents who raise a bilingual-bimodal child in ASL (or another signed language) and English (or another written and/or spoken language of its respective) as well as informative and educational for ASL specialists, educators, and professionals.