News Release

Children's ability to create language-like communication

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Young children can spontaneously and rapidly create novel communication systems with core features of natural languages, a study finds. Languages are thought to evolve across generations or even millennia. How languages emerge and how quickly this process occurs are not well understood. Manuel Bohn and colleagues examined the origin of novel communication systems in 198 children ranging in age from 3-8 years. The children were paired together, but placed in separate rooms linked through a video connection, and instructed to take turns communicating the content of 5 familiar pictures to each other without using spoken language. Within a single trial, the majority of 6-year-old children independently produced gestures to refer to the depicted objects and actions. By the fifth trial, both 4-year-old and 6-year-old children spontaneously developed signs for abstract concepts such as emptiness. Through mutual imitation, children in each pair converged on using similar gestures to refer to the same object or action. The gestures became more arbitrary over time but remained comprehensible, and grammatical structure was imposed to communicate more complex information such as size and quantity. Taken together, the results suggest that young children possess the required skills to not only learn languages but also create novel communication systems that exhibit language-like features.

Article #19-04871: "Young children spontaneously recreate core properties of language in a new modality," by Manuel Bohn, Gregor Kachel, Michael Tomasello

MEDIA CONTACT: Manuel Bohn, Leipzig University, Leipzig, GERMANY; e-mail:


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