Department or Program


Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Jennie Pyers


Iconicity, or the similarity between a symbol and its meaning, is found in many languages, especially in sign languages. Children use iconicity to facilitate new word learning, although the age when they seem to reliably leverage iconicity varies from study to study. Previous studies have inconsistently classified iconic gesture type, and this inconsistency may have affected their findings and generalizability. We proposed that children might be differently sensitive to iconic gestures with varying degrees of embodiment. Therefore, we categorized iconic gesture types based on level of embodiment, with gestures differing in terms of action and/or perceptual features. We tested adults (n = 20) and children (n = 81) on their baseline recognition of iconic and non-iconic gestures that represented familiar objects. Then, we taught the same participants three different types of iconic and non-iconic gestures to determine which gesture types were more easily learned. Results indicated that adults were at ceiling in recognizing and learning all iconic gesture types. Four- to five-year-old children were less accurate than adults, but learned all iconic gesture types equally well. Three-year-old children recognized and learned iconic gestures that had higher levels of action-based embodiment than gestures that represented perceptual features. Therefore, children attend to different features of iconicity throughout development, suggesting that embodiment does play a role in children’s ability to learn gestures.