One main context for language learning is in social interactions with parents and caregivers. Infants produce vocal and gestural behaviors and caregivers respond to these behaviors, which supports language development. Prior studies have shown a strong relationship between infants’ pointing gestures and language outcomes. One reason for this association is that parents translate the apparent meaning of infants’ points, thus providing infants with language input associated with their pointing behavior. In contrast to the relationship between pointing and language development, infants’ overall vocal production is not related to language outcomes. One possible explanation for the different association between pointing and language outcomes, compared to vocalizations and language outcomes, is that pointing may elicit more verbal responses from social partners that are facilitative for language learning.
To examine this possibility, we observed twelve-month-olds during free play interactions with their mothers and fathers. At this age, infants do not have many words in their vocabulary and thus communicate primarily with gestures and vocalizations. We compared parents’ verbal responses to infants’ pointing gestures and object-directed vocalizations. Results showed that infants’ pointing elicited more verbal responses from parents compared to object-directed vocalizations. Also, these verbal responses were mainly object labels. These results may help explain why pointing is associated with indices of language acquisition, but the production of vocalizations is not. Furthermore, the study highlights the importance of examining moment-to-moment interactions to uncover social mechanisms that support language development.