First multilingual non-verbal communication milestones

When children grow up with multiple languages they not only acquire words from different languages, they also learn different gestures.

A healthy communication development starts in the first year of life and consists not only in becoming verbal – i.e. articulating sounds and acquiring that sound-chains can have a meaning and connect with objects, people and concepts in the world around us – but also in using gestures and facial expressions.  It has its roots in social interaction with parents and other caregivers during everyday activities.

For multilingual families this means that we have to make sure to communicate with our children in the different home languages with a certain consistency so that our children can copy the sounds we make and the gestures we use. 

By observing our children’s acquisition and use of gestures, we can get an impression of what their overall communication development looks and might look like in the future.

Research with young children indicates that the development of gestures from 9 to 16 months predicts language ability two years later, which is significant because preschool language skills predict academic success. So it’s important to remember that by 16 months, children should have at least 16 gestures. – On the Reading Rockets website you can find an interesting pdf file with 16 Gestures by 16 months.

I am always cautious when it comes to advice like the one that by 16 months, children should have at least 16 gestures. Every child is different and family situations are unique. Furthermore, languages and cultures differ in communication styles, also with regard to gestures. Some gestures are used in different languages and seem to be universal, but they can slightly or highly differ in their meaning.

The typical American sign of “thumbs up” for example, or the “hand up” sign for “wait” seem to be perfectly acceptable in some Western cultures, but they are not in Eastern countries and languages or Greece (for the wait sign). Sings vary across cultures and it is advisable to get informed about the signs our partner uses with our children and agree on what we want and can introduce and what not.

Families who raise children with multiple languages, focus on multiple communication verbal and non-verbal styles. 

In this context it would be interesting to study the use of baby-sign language and the effect it has on the infant and toddler’s acquisition of gestures and verbal language.* 

If your child happens to be between 9 and 16 months old when you read this, it would be interesting if you could take pictures or write a log-book about the signs he or she makes. – I’d be very interested in knowing about these milestones as it is something I missed taking notes about when my children where that age.

I recall one particular milestone of son at age 2,8 years, that I mention in my intercultural communication classes when I talk about non-verbal communication: we just moved from Italy to the Netherlands and my son was used to hear and speak more Italian and used some Italian gestures already. Among these, the sign stai attento / guarda…! = sei nei guai (be careful / = you are in trouble) was one of his favourite. It was impressive to notice that within a few weeks in a Dutch daycare, he switched from the Italian hand gesture to the Dutch one lekker lekker, to signify yummy, yummy.


When a parent asked me what to watch out for about her daughter’s language development in this pre-verbal phase, while acquiring Arabic and Italian. I suggested her to decide with her husband what gestures are important for both languages and won’t lead to misunderstandings or embarrassing situations, to observe her daughter and not to worry as long as the daughter is making some kind of progress.

What should us make reach out for help is, when there is a long stagnation in the development or a noticeable regression, and there is no apparent reason for it, eg. a transition or change, like the birth of a sibling, a move, but also changes that for us seem minor but can mean a world to our little ones. Whenever parents start to worry, it is advisable to ask an expert and find out what might be the cause. 


Good communication skills are the best tool to prevent behavior problems and make it easier to work through moments of frustration that all infants and toddlers face.




* Please have a look at Roya Caviglia’s Infant Communication Baby Sign Language Courses 


Further readings

This is an article in Italian that explains the meaning of baby’s body-language 


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