The relationship between language and eye contact

  • Paola Pennisi
  • Sebastiano Nucera
  • Bruno Galletti
  • Francesco Galletti
Keywords: word learning, eye contact, gaze following, language acquisition, autism, congenital blindness, blind, joint attention


In this study we will aim to develop two ideas: (1) eye contact is an innate and important tool of social cognition which, among other things, facilitates language acquisition; (2) eye contact, however, is not essential for the development of language and joint attention.

The cost of staring into a person’s eyes is the impossibility of reading her lips to phonologically disambiguate language. Nevertheless, children, like adults, gaze more at the eyes than at the mouth of their communicative partner. This study lends support to the idea that eye contact plays an important role in language acquisition as it becomes a primary means to fixing reference. The looking for eye-contact is innate; we will attempt to delineate the longitudinal development of the interest for eyes in newborns from the first few hours to two years of life.

The second idea will be developed by considering the consequences of anomalies in eye contact in the linguistic phenotypes of people with autism spectrum disorder (which affects eye-contact from two months of age) and of people with congenital blindness. In both cases, subjects show delays in language development, ToM development and deictic competence. Subjects with autism can compensate for the linguistic deficit and, through this compensation, they can also partially compensate for their deficit in ToM. Subjects with congenital blindness can compensate for all these deficits.


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How to Cite
Pennisi, P., Nucera, S., Galletti, B. and Galletti, F. (2022) “The relationship between language and eye contact”, Rivista Italiana di Filosofia del Linguaggio. doi: 10.4396/202208MC.