Acquisition of Sign Languages

Course time: 
Tuesday/Friday 1:30-3:20 PM
JSB 103

This course summarizes research on the acquisition of the natural sign languages used predominantly by Deaf communities, with a focus on data from American Sign Language (ASL). The study of the acquisition of sign languages contributes some important components to our knowledge of language acquisition more generally (just as the study of the structure of sign languages does so): in particular, the acquisition of languages in the visual modality broadens our conception of how modality factors shape the acquisition process, and the special characteristics of communities of signers show us more about how language input and transmission play a role in acquisition. For example, as the ‘baby sign’ movement emphasizes, infants are able to produce interpretable sign-like gestures well before the first clear spoken words; does this mean sign languages are acquired more quickly than spoken languages are? Most deaf children are born to families who do not sign; how does this affect the nature of sign language development?

The course will be intended for those who have no background in sign linguistics as well as for those who are learning about sign languages or have some experience with them. Each class session will include presentation/discussion of a particular topic, along with some time for active learning. If possible, small groups of students will be formed so that at least one student in a group has some knowledge of sign, so that group activities can involve discussion from varying levels of experience. One class session will be devoted to discussing ‘doing research on sign language acquisition’, with instruction in common techniques of analyzing sign language data, and access to an emerging corpus of sign language acquisition spontaneous production data.

Participants are strongly encouraged to attend the Workshop on ASL Research Resources scheduled for July 12 to obtain detailed information about accessing and using the SLAAASh corpus of ASL acquisition, ASL SignBank, and ASL-LEX.