Pointing Is A Prerequisite For Language

Research in developmental and comparative psychology has discovered that the humble pointing gesture is a key ingredient for the capacity to develop and use human language, and indeed for the very possibility of human social interaction as we know it.

Pointing gestures seem simple. We use them all the time. I might point when I give someone directions to the station, when I indicate which loaf of bread I want to buy, or when I show you where you have spinach stuck in your teeth. We often accompany such pointing gestures with words, but for infants who are not yet able to talk these gestures can work all on their own.

Infants begin to communicate by pointing at about nine months of age, a year before they can produce even the simplest sentences. Careful experimentation has established that prelinguistic infants can use pointing gestures to ask for things, to help others by pointing things out to them, and to share experiences with others by drawing attention to things that they find interesting and exciting.

Pointing does not just manipulate the other’s focus of attention, it momentarily unites two people through a shared focus on something. With pointing, we do not just look at the same thing, we look at it together. This is a particularly human trick, and it is arguably the thing that ultimately makes social and cultural institutions possible. Being able to point and to comprehend the pointing gestures of others is crucial for the achievement of “shared intentionality,” the ability to build relationships through the sharing of perceptions, beliefs, desires, and goals.

Comparative psychology finds that pointing (in its full-blown form) is unique to our species. Few non-human species appear to be able to comprehend pointing (notably, domestic dogs can follow pointing while our closest relatives among the great apes cannot), and there is little evidence of pointing occuring spontaneously between members of any species other than our own. It appears that only humans have the social-cognitive infrastructure needed to support the kind of cooperative and prosocial motivations that pointing gestures presuppose.

This suggests a new place to look for the foundations of human language. While research on language in cognitive science has long focused on its logical structure, the news about pointing suggests an alternative: that the essence of language is found in our capacity for the communion of minds through shared intentionality. At the center of it is the deceptively simple act of pointing, an act that must be mastered before language can be learned at all.