Gestural pointing and communicative gestures (DRAFT)

Cries and fusses are the simplest form of communication for the most human needs -- food, diaper change, and sleep. Beyond these, this documentation shows the process of baby's communicative gestures from eye to patting to hand-pointing to finger-pointing and hand-guiding.

Eye and body language with baby

At 7 weeks, the baby Juli first smiled socially! A huge milestone. At 9 weeks, she still coo-ed both manually and vocally as we talked turn-taking. She smiled and laughed.

Juli (age 0;2) began to communicate more through body language beyond cries that I could recognize the nuances of her pre-lingual communication and body language.

Whenever Juli sneezed, we blessed her, HEALTH in ASL every time since she was born. Then whenever I sneezed while Juli was busily feeding, she suddenly stopped feeding and turned to look at me with her distinct, unforgettable look with some kind of a smile. How can I describe it in words? Her hands, facial expression, and eyes reflected as if she was telling me "health", "Look, you sneeze too!", or some equivalent. There was a language of its own in her mind. Several sneezes or days later, Juli more or less ignored my sneezes when feeding as she got accustomed to them.

Video clip: "Mom has just sneezed. Healthy, yes. Thank you." Captured immediately after my sneeze but her initial response was not captured on video. Capturing an actual moment was often a challenge in candid photography and videography.

Video clip (English translation): "I'm Angela (signed name). Nice to meet you. .. Ok, shall we be friends? I may come and visit you sometimes, ok? Be good girl. Sleep tonight, ok? Oh, cute nice smile you've got. Time to sleep, you're tired, aren't you? No? Happy to see me?"

An interesting part of the video clip is that the moment Angela told Juli, "You have a nice smile," Juli broke into a smile. How did that happen?

Another example, to help Juli (age 0;2,4) feel at ease with my short disappearance, I signed wait, one-moment (one of the ASL words I frequently used) immediately before I left. Juli seemed to become accustomed to this routine.

First I explained to Juli where or why I was going and then signed wait and/or one-moment before I left for a brief time. She usually didn't cry until I came back within a reasonable time frame. Juli seemed to learn this association of my brief disappearance with a trust that I'd return.

Video clip: Juli sometimes suddenly pushed away from feeding and gave me a distinct certain look, "Look, I'm listening. Talk to me!"

The emergence of communicative gestures

Baby Juli (age 0;5) began to pat hard with her hand sometimes when she became excited or anxious (or whatever it was). But, a new development emerged that I began to notice a new milestone: communicative patting. She patted hard on my arm when she wanted to go there or to reach something closer.

To determine whether Juli actually communicated by patting, I took her to small works of art that I knew she loved so much looking at these works of mine.

Juli tapped hard on my arm till I moved her closer to the images. She stopped tapping when the artwork was close enough to look at. Then I pulled her down. She tapped on my arm again. It went on again and again.

In the following weeks, Juli (age 0;5,4) babbled her hands to get attention when she was in the rocker. She had been doing this for weeks.

It's amazing how these communicative gestures can communicate so much information without any words.


I began to notice that Juli (age 0;5,3) used a finger to point toward an object. Previously, she pointed at or reached for things by using a hand.

Was she communicating by consciously pointing? Or, was it a natural response of reaching something by desire?

"At 9 to 11 months, when infants start to be able to understand a few words, they produce pointing gestures. The emergence of pointing is a good predictor of first-word onset, and gesture production is related to gains in language development between 9 and 13 months (Bates & al., 1979; Butcher & Goldin-Meadow, 2000; Caselli, 1990).

As explained in Butterworth (2003), "pointing not only serves to single out the object but also to build a connection between the object and the speech sound [or signed word, I should correct!]." Ref

True intentional communication begins to emerge at around eight months of age.

Juli (age 0;7,0) appeared to learn to elicit responses and to respond by turn-taking, tapping to get attention, etc. She learned to use gestures for communication.

For example, I noticed that Juli tapped on my hand or arm to get my attention. She also took my hand whenever she needed my finger to chew on her teethless gums to help soothe her teething. She reached out for my hands whenever she wanted help or asked to pick her up.

A little after this, Juli sat about a few meters away from me. I reached out my arms, summoning with my hands. She lunged forward and crawled toward me. I picked her up and huggled.

Juli continued to manually babble. One day Juli sat on my lap while my aunt and I talked on videophone. She observed my aunt talking. She tried to talk in ASL, producing a syllabic babble which was similar to work, her first babbling production.

The emergence of gestural pointing

First of all, pointing gesture (usually at 9 to 11 months) is universal, regardless of spoken language or signed language. Pointing gesture is an indicator of communicative/language development in either signed language or spoken language.

Juli (age 8;3) initially handpointed and then, with quick transition, began to fingerpoint toward certain locations in space where she wanted to go.

Juli was able to direct me or a caretaker where she wanted to go by handpointing toward a specific location, especially a work of art or a photograph on the wall. She handpointed and vocalized at the same time.

In addition to handpointing, Grandma Z described how she followed Juli's direction by observing the baby's body leaning toward a destination. So much freedom for Juli now that not only she could crawl, but also she could handpoint where she wanted to go!

Just in a few days from the emergence of hand-pointing, I noticed Juli began to form an index-finger pointing toward things in the space.

One night Juli rested on my shoulder at 3 o'clock in the morning. I tried to soothe her to sleep but I checked and she was still awake. She was gazing at the hanging storage in long silence.

Then in lightning sudden, Juli raised her arm straight and pointed at the hanging storage. It was something like "Look at that/this!" I laughed. It was a moment that I felt she was talking with me in a sense of two-way communication.

Understanding the difference between word and gesture

A sentence in the article about "baby sign language" on a website (expertise on parenting) reads: "Keep in mind that simple gestures such as waving bye-bye and blowing kisses are a form of sign language." This phonocentric statement is unsurprisingly reflecting a mainstream ignorance.

This statement is akin to saying that sighing, yelling, and raspberries are a form of speech language. Rather, say they are a form of vocal gesture. That is, waving bye-bye, blowing kisses, and pointing are a form of manual gesture. Sign language and speech languages are linguistic, apart from communicative gestures, because sign language and speech language process similarly in the linguistic regions of the left brain, while gestures process in a different part of the brain.

Off the point: using sign language is a parallel to using speech language in term of bilingualism, not "communicating before talking" since sign language is already the form of talking. Signed language spoken language acquisition are on the similar timeline of language development milestones.

Pointing from a point to another point

Hanging out in the studio basement had been her favorite routine. Another day Juli (age 1;1) wanted to ride on the tool seat in the basement. She pointed to the doorway leading to the basement and produced a whinny razzy. I brought her down the stairs.

Juli then pointed to the tool seat with a whinny razzy. It was what she wanted specifically in mind. I put her on the rolling seat and rode along with her. She smiled. It was one of her favorites.

Talking about non-present referents

Juli began to talk more and more about some referents that were not present nor in contexts, which meant she was thinking about things. It somehow correlated to the recent development of pretend play and imagination.

Thinking means less use of pointing. Thus, it presented a bit more challenge to figure out what she talked about.

Pointing to referents presented an easy context to recognize the ASL words, but sometimes it could be difficult when they were not present. For example, those concepts shoes, ball, and more constituted the same production that I couldn't read Juli's concepts in mind or when context was not there.

But, on the other hand, sometimes I could understand her productions easily, depending on what ASL words were. For example, her production dirty was distinct from any other productions.

One day Juli came to me and produced vacuum with a question mark on her look. Not sure what she wanted with one word utterance, I simply replied Vacuum? Yes, ok.

Juli smiled brightly and excitedly toddled toward the closet, waiting for me to open it. I learned that she was asking for permission, "Can I play with vacuum?"

Another one was that Juli looked at me and produced father. I replied, "Oh, he's still out." Juli responded work. I nodded, yes.

These ones were easy, but there were other moments that Juli talked about things I tried to figure out her ASL productions which were not phonologically acquired further yet.

For example, Juli just started producing lady+bug (ladybug) that was not clearly recognizable (too complex to produce at her age). I could recognize her production in context but not always out of context.

The other day Juli produced phone (correct location, but "A" handshape) when my cellphone vibrated. I had to figure out what she talked about. At first, I thought mother, but the movement was not the same. Then, the thought of the cellphone came to me quickly. I checked and found out I received a new message.

The "pointing-and-naming" stage was about to be over. Now, Juli pointed to her thoughts.

Getting attention and leading

Juli (age 1;3,0) had learned that I was a visually-oriented person. Every time she or her head leaned sideway, I'd notice out of the corner of my eye and turned to gaze at her. She did this every time to get my attention. Sometimes, she would lean sideway to the left in her highchair to get my attention whenever I became absorbed preparing food.

A few weeks later (week 4), Juli (age 1;3,3) tapped on my arm or leg to get attention. Sometimes she would pull the sleeve to get one's difficult attention. She stomped her foot to get one's attention from a short distance. Juli also often led me to something she wanted or wanted to show by taking my hand and leading me to the destination.

One day Juli told me motorcycle with a razzy visue. I didn't get it. She repeated it. Seeing that I was clueless. She took my hand and led me to the window of my office. We looked out the window. Ah, the neighbor was starting his classic motorcycle.

One Friday as I was putting some food in the microwave, Juli just exited the kitchen. Just in a blink-like moment, she came back crying with her very first bump on her forehead.

After taking care of her, I asked [translation] Where did it hit your forehead?. She toddled fast toward the piano bench, pointed to it, and explained hit-on-head++. Next early morning Juli's father came back home from his night shift. Juli took her father's hand and led him to the piano bench and told what happened.

Juli (age 1;5) tapped on me to get my attention and pointed in the direction. She uttered bug. I simply nodded. She insisted and finally took my hand and led me to the fireplace. I looked at the dark fireplace. Hmm, I didn't see anything.

Moments later, Juli again got my attention and uttered bug. Seeing that I didn't get it, she led my hand to the fireplace again. I peered through the dark fireplace's glass cover. I saw nothing.

But, somehow I lifted up and leaned over only to realize I noticed a dark dead bumblebee inside the fireplace. Who would have noticed it? Juli felt satisfied with the "Aha!" look on my face. For the rest of this week, Juli still talked about the bug in the fireplace.

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