Table of Contents:
2) Sign Language as a Language
3) A Comparison Between American And British Sign Language
4) The Development of Speech in Deaf Children
5) The Vocabulary – A Comparison Between Deaf And Hearing Children
Sign Language – an issue which is, for most people, a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. It is kind of mystic for people who have little or no relation to sign language or people practicing it. Those people wonder about how the communication system of signing people works and how the sign language acquisition develops. Even linguists who dealt with this topic were not in complete agreement. “Until about 1970, the linguistic status of sign language was regarded as highly controversial” (Rodda/Grove 1987:101), which is founded on many reasons. This term paper shall try to give answers on the questions mentioned above, occasionally beholding also the opposed views of several linguists on sundry topics. But first it has to be said that the issue of sign language and it´s acquisition is an enormous domain. Therefore only the basic information is given, so the reader can understand and follow the elementary process of sign language acquisition. Furthermore the reader needs to know that the stereotype in this exposition is a prelingually deaf child who is exposed to sign language, ostensibly American Sign Language, since his or her birth.
Giving a first impression of how the system of sign language works, this term paper starts off with the formal and grammatical structure of American Sign Language. Subsequent a comparison with the structure of British Sign Language follows, so the reader can get a picture of the similarities and differences between those two sign languages, which is kind of interesting because oral English in America and Britain differs essentially in spelling, but not in grammar. After this we will focus on the main part of this term paper, the acquisition of sign language in the deaf child. The development of “speech” is presented chronologically, so that it is easier for the reader to follow. Moreover, the direct comparison to language acquisition of hearing children is drawn in places and even a short essay of deaf children trying to use oral speech is given in this chapter. Therefore the reader is able to develop gradually an own impression of the issue. Then, in the next chapter, the vocabulary of hearing and deaf children is compared, which is also an interesting item, because there exist several different opinions in regard to this. The last chapter deals with the answer to the central questions of this term paper which are: How does the acquisition of sign language differ from language acquisition of hearing children? Are they therefore handicapped? If yes, to what extent?
This term paper is mainly based on six authors, who are in particular Michael Rodda, Carl
Grove, Roland Pfau, Markus Steinbach, Bencie Woll and Anne Baker. These authors were depicted because thus one can see the development in linguistic research on this field due to the fact that Rodda and Grove published their findings in 1987, Baker and Woll in 2008 and Pfau, Steinbach and Woll again in 2012, so there are three different periods in time which show chronologically their research developments and improvements in this issue.
The reason why people deal with the subject of deaf people and their way of communication is simply interest. Everything what is unknown by a human evokes interest, in this case it is especially the (sign) language acquisition in the deaf child, because it is a little more unfamiliar to us than communication of deaf adults. One wonders about how prelingually deaf children know how to communicate without understanding oral speech. A hearing person can´t imagine that one is able to “speak” without speech, but, regarding to this, this term paper might be able to smooth some misapprehensions out.
2) Sign language as a Language:
Most people who are not exposed to sign language or are not in contact with people practicing sign language do not understand the system of signing. In this chapter, there will be given a brief overview on that topic.
The issue of whether sign languages are “real” languages or not has been highly discussed for a long time. Non-verbal communication systems were thought to be “linguistically primitive, lacking in vocabulary, grammatically confused and incapable of expressing subtle and abstract concepts” (Rodda/Grove 1987:101). William Stokoe is considered as the originator of the acceptance American Sign Language being a real human language, basing his arguments on parallels found in grammatical structures in both, spoken and signed languages (cf. Liddell 2003:VIII). This research by Stokoe in 1960 brought the perception of sign languages being full, complex and independent human languages (cf. Pfau et al. 2012:1).
The first and most significant difference between spoken and signed languages seems to be about the communication channel. Spoken languages transmit information through vocal articulation, which get perceived by the ear. In contrast, sign languages transmit information by body
movements, which get perceived visually. This difference is called “modality difference” (ibid.:2).
Finally, how does sign language work? The text, clumsily said, is carried by the hands, whereas intonation is produced by the upper face, for example by the brows and the eyelids, but this area of sign language research is not well enough explored yet (cf. ibid.:71). Signs which are made at the same part of the body often have a familiar meaning (cf. ibid.:79f). So signs that are made on the temple often have a meaning with reference to mental activity, for example remember, learn and worry, whereas signs which are articulated on the chest often express feelings, like love, suffer or happy (cf. ibid.:79f).
What gives sign languages, in this case especially American Sign Language, a linguistic character is the use of so called cheremes, which are closely parallel to phonemes in spoken languages. Spoken English uses about 44 phonemes, whereas American Sign Language uses 55 major cheremes (cf. Rodda/Grove 1987:129).
Furthermore there are three basic parameters (by Stokoe) in American Sign Language (cf. ibid.:129):
1) Dez. This is the shape adopted by the signer´s hand(s) (cf. ibid.:129). In American Sign Language there are 19 handshapes (cf. ibid.:349). This parameter is, typically acquired the latest of the three major parameters by deaf children (cf. Pfau et al. 2012:655f)
2) Tab. This shows the location of the sign relative to the signer´s body (cf. Rodda/Grove 1987:129). American Sign Language contains 12 basic locations (cf. ibid.:349). Location is, in general, mastered earliest, produced accurately in even the first signs (cf. Pfau et al. 2012:655f)
3) Sig. This describes the motions made by the signer´s hand(s) during execution of a sign (cf. Rodda/Grove 1987:129) and there are about 24 different movements in American Sign Language (cf. ibid.:349). Movement is the parameter which gets acquired second by deaf children (cf. Pfau et al. 2012:655f). Sig is also the most complex sign parameter and can be subdivided into the following classes of movements: movements of the fingers or wrist, linear movements in one of the signing planes, circular movements, interactions of both hands, simultaneous clusters of basic movement components and sequential and/or simultaneous combinations of movement (cf. Rodda/Grove 1987:130).
In American Sign Language, 40% of the signs are made with only one hand, 35% with both hands and 25% are made with one active hand and a passive one, functioning as the basis for the active hand (cf. ibid.:129). Signs are articulated at: the forehead, cheek, mid-face, lips, chin, neck, trunk, upper arm, forearm, wrist, base hand and at the neutral space in front of the signer
(cf. ibid.:130). In addition to that, American Sign Language has, like any oral language, a phonetic, gestural, phonemic, morphological, syntactical and semantic level (cf. ibid.:151). Also the internal structure is similar to that of spoken languages (cf. ibid.:154) and the formal structure is elaborated on a par with them (cf. ibid.:138). Taken all this together, it gets clear that American Sign Language is everything but not pantomimic as some would say. To give evidence about that, Klima and Bellugi conducted a test in 1979 with 10 hearing non-signing persons who should identify 90 signs of American Sign Language. Only nine signs out of 90 were identified correctly (cf. ibid.: 133).