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Complications of Acquiring Sign Language

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Communication can manifest in many ways – verbal, physical, visual, etc. Since man has existed we have found ways to communicate with one another through these different ways of expressing ourselves. Humans typically communicate through speech; And in this age of technology, messages via internet. The formation of human language is a historically-rich story which often involves the blending of many different cultures, but perhaps the most interesting concept is how we found ways to communicate before the discovery of speech. Physical expression has long been used to communicate with one another. Our ancestors used physical communication and it is still one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposable today, so much so that entire languages have been constructed of it. Sign languages are languages that use manual expressions to visually represent ideas and convey meaning. These languages have their own vocabulary as well as grammar rules. The role that age has on the development of sign language skills and comprehension of the language itself is perhaps one of the biggest factors when analyzing the morphological understanding of the language.

The connection between sign language and gestures is a topic of great interest. The formation of languages typically involves acquires new words and sounds, but in sign language handshapes and gestures lead to the development of a new language. Gary Morgan of City University London and Chloe R. Marshall of the University of London investigate how accurately hearing adults who have been learning BSL (British Sign Language) for 1-3 years are able to produce and comprehend classifiers. In a production test of hearing adults who practiced BSL for 1-3 years it was found that they could use their hands to represent objects but found difficulty in choosing the same conventionalized handshapes as native signers. (Marshall & Morgan 2014) The two concluded that adult learners of BSL are able to bring their visuo-spatial knowledge and understanding of gestures to correctly produce classifiers.

The first study of the article has twelve hearing adults with a mean age of 28.6 explaining in BSL the differences between two pictures which were both presented for three seconds each. Eleven of twelve participants finished the study. “The production was was challenging for learners of BSL. while they were generally very accurate i expressing location and orientation information in locatives and distributive plurals, they found the use of conventional BSL handshapes more problematic.” The difficulty in knowing which handshapes to use to describe the pictures raised the question of comprehension of classifiers and leads to the second study of the article. The same twelve participants watched a video of sign and after had to choose a correct picture of what had been signed during the video. The results were very different from the first study. “It should be noted that the learners performed very accurately with this task (and reported finding it extremely easy), in contrast to their considerably less accurate performance on the production task (which the majority reported finding very challenging).” (Marshall & Morgan 2014) The final study of the article compared the comprehension of classifiers in learners of BSL and non-signers with some interesting findings. The article states “That the non-signers did so well and that their pattern of performance did not differ in any way from learners of BSL indicates that much in entity classifier constructions can be understood using general visuo-spatial skills and without any formal introduction to sign language.” 

The article itself was well-structured and easy to read. Three contingent studies of the same twelve participants is both beneficial for consistency but also lacking a large sample size. The most interesting find was that “the finding that learners of BSL performed better than non-signers shows that language experience also plays a role in successful comprehension.” 

Sign language in the education system has recently been of great interest and debate. The complications of sign language in the education system could pose issues for educators and students due to miscommunication through things such as as aspectual inflections. Dennis Galvan, a professor in the Department of Psychology for Gallaudet University attempts to shed light on the topic by analyzing a study of 30 native and early signing children between the ages of 3 and 9. The children were asked to sign a story in ASL (American Sign Language) to be analyzed and evaluated for morphological and contextual implications. There was found to be qualitative differences between native and early signers relating to verbal complexity in signs but not the voicing of it. (Galvan 1999) These results may imply that adult signers may be using different strategies when it comes to language-processing than children signers.

Galvan found in his study that when in came to the ability to use morphologically complex verbs there were differences in the amount of aspectual inflections between age groups. He found that native signers of ages 5, 7, and 9 typically use the same number of aspectual inflections while early signers of younger ages, 5 years old, tend to use more aspectual inflections than 9 year old early signers. Galvan proposes that while the children of different ages were qualitatively different, it is also possible that children of earlier ages go through a different process when learning sign language. (Galvan 1999) Further analyzing the differences between native and early signers, Galvan goes on to state “The interesting finding here is that early signers show cognitive growth (as evidenced by increasingly complex utterances) without morphological growth of aspectual inflections.)” (Galvan 1999) This evidence further fuels the debate for sign language in the education system. Galvan goes on to conclude his study by saying “Implicit in the present discussion is the issue of the teacher’s knowledge and use of ASL in the classroom. The teacher should be able to assess the child’s ability to use ASL to express a particular concept. To do this, the teacher must be able to express and comprehend that concept in ASL.” (Galvan 1999)

The article provides a well prepared experiment to determine the differences in morphological understanding between native speakers and early speakers. Galvan uses his analysis of the data to make an argument against sign language in the education system providing multiple implications which would prove as complications for educators to communicate effectively with their young students. Galvan’s analysis and interpretation of the results of the experiment are clear and easy to understand which make for a solid argument against sign language in the education system. However, this experiment of only 30 participants is relatively small considering the amount of age groups he incorporated and it could certainly contain outliers as well.

It is well known that age plays a role in the development and understanding of language, especially when it comes to complications such as grammar usage. It is interesting to see the effect that age has on an unspoken language. Sign language has many morphological rules just as other languages do. It is clear that age plays a huge role – Adult signers typically have an easier time comprehending what is being signed, but have difficulty in providing the correct handshapes. Early learning children seem to have similar difficulty, however native signers of young language seem to grasp morphological concepts much more efficiently. Just as any language it is evident that learning the language when it is not your native language is going to prove to be challenging. Both articles using experiments to provide data of these findings was beneficial and made the results more clear through visual representation of charts and graphs.

In conclusion, learning sign language regardless of age is sure to be difficult but learning at an older age may actually have an advantage over learning at a young age because of the better general understanding of visuo-spatial skills. Being more cognitive and the ability to more efficiently comprehend may prove more beneficial than simply beginning to learn the language at a younger age. Because of the age difference it is plausible that adult signers use different strategies and techniques than children signers to comprehend morphological forms of the language.

Works Cited

  • Galvan, Dennis. “Differences in the Use of American Sign Language Morphology by Deaf Children: Implications for Parents and Teachers.” American Annals of the Deaf, vol. 144, no. 4, 1999, pp. 320–324., doi:10.1353/aad.2012.0298.
  • Marshall, Chloë R., and Gary Morgan. “From Gesture to Sign Language: Conventionalization of Classifier Constructions by Adult Hearing Learners of British Sign Language.” Topics in Cognitive Science, vol. 7, no. 1, 2014, pp. 61–80., doi:10.1111/tops.12118. 

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