Pre-schoolers use head gestures rather than prosodic cues to highlight important information in speech

Núria Esteve-Gibert, Hélène Lœvenbruck, Marion Dohen, Mariapaola D'Imperio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Previous evidence suggests that children's mastery of prosodic modulations to signal the informational status of discourse referents emerges quite late in development. In the present study, we investigate the children's use of head gestures as it compares to prosodic cues to signal a referent as being contrastive relative to a set of possible alternatives. A group of French-speaking pre-schoolers were audio-visually recorded while playing in a semi-spontaneous but controlled production task, to elicit target words in the context of broad focus, contrastive focus, or corrective focus utterances. We analysed the acoustic features of the target words (syllable duration and word-level pitch range), as well as the head gesture features accompanying these target words (head gesture type, alignment patterns with speech). We found that children's production of head gestures, but not their use of either syllable duration or word-level pitch range, was affected by focus condition. Children mostly aligned head gestures with relevant speech units, especially when the target word was in phrase-final position. Moreover, the presence of a head gesture was linked to greater syllable duration patterns in all focus conditions. Our results show that (a) 4- and 5-year-old French-speaking children use head gestures rather than prosodic cues to mark the informational status of discourse referents, (b) the use of head gestures may gradually entrain the production of adult-like prosodic features, and that (c) head gestures with no referential relation with speech may serve a linguistic structuring function in communication, at least during language development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13154
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • French
  • contrastive focus
  • head gestures
  • information structure
  • language acquisition
  • non-referential gestures
  • prosody development


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