What gestures reveal about the development of semantic representations in first and second language acquisition
Marianne Gullberg, Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics
A key question in research on language acquisition concerns how learners acquire word meaning and develop target-like semantic representations. In child language acquisition the main issue is where representations come from, and whether and how they develop towards the adult norm. In adult second language acquisition, in contrast, the central question concerns the role of existing first language representations, and whether representations can be adjusted towards the target language. I will present three studies illustrating what speech-associated gestures can reveal about these issues. The semantic test domain is placement (to put something somewhere). The first study shows how placement verb semantics differ in Dutch and French and how this difference is reflected in two cross-linguistically distinct gesture patterns. The second study demonstrates how Dutch children´s placement gestures change as their use of placement verbs develops. Finally, the last study similarly illustrates how adult Dutch learners of French gesture differently about placement as a function of proficiency. Together the studies highlight how gestures (1) provide information about details of semantic representations which may go undetected in speech; (2) shed light on the process of acquisition by revealing shifts in focused and integrated information. I briefly discuss the implications of these findings for theories of language acquisition.