Sign Language Acquisition

Article excerpt

Sign Language Acquisition, ed. Anne Baker and Bencie Woll (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2008, 178 pp., hardcover, $120.00, ISBN 978-90-272-2244-2)

THIS VOLUME FEATURES a collection of papers published in 2005 as a special issue of Sign Language and Linguistics (8[1/2]). The papers originated from a workshop on acquisition hosted by the Intersign Network, an organization established to promote collaborative sign language linguistic research throughout Europe. In line with this mission, these papers cover a healthy variety of national sign languages (including Sign Language of the Netherlands/NGT, Finnish Sign Language/FinnSL, and British Sign Language/BSL) and address methodological issues relevant to data exchange and cross-linguistic research. These issues still pose formidable challenges in the field of sign language acquisition, a point that is acknowledged by all of the authors, who offer frank evaluations of specific practices in transcription, coding, and language assessment.

In chapter 1 Anne Baker, Beppie van den Bogaerde, and Bencie WoIl provide a helpful guide of best practices for designing and conducting sign language acquisition research projects. Their impressively comprehensive discussion presents various research design choices and variables to consider when selecting subjects. Next they deal with data collection and consider the pros and cons of spontaneous versus elicited data. They also offer very practical suggestions on how to position the video camera(s) during filming, how long to film, and how to minimize the effects of the researcher's presence on the production of the signers who are being filmed (the well-known "observer's paradox" [Labov 1972]). In addition, the authors address transcription and coding, areas in which fieldwide standards have traditionally been conspicuous by their absence, greatly hampering collaboration among sign researchers. To explain this state of affairs, the authors list the many variables that researchers must consider when designing a transcription system: which levels of language data to transcribe and which units of analysis to choose, what software to use for creating transcripts, how to represent voicing or mouthing that accompanies signing, how to distinguish between early gesture and early signs, and how to gloss specific sign language structures. Throughout their discussion, the authors raise problematic issues and offer the solutions that their respective research teams adopted, but they do not promote one solution over another. Instead, they emphasize that different research questions invariably lead to various choices in transcription practice. The chapter concludes with a general timeline of the stages of sign language development, drawn from acquisition reports on ASL and several European sign languages. The authors warn that this timeline is still very preliminary and hence should not be regarded as in any way definitive; still, it provides a useful orientation to the reader and at the same time reminds us of how much work remains to be done in the area of sign language acquisition.

Baker, van den Bogaerde, and WoIl are painstakingly thorough in their discussion of the many features of data collection and transcription that researchers must consider before designing a sign acquisition project. Their thoroughness makes chapter 1 the most widely useful one in this volume. It would be even more helpful if it included mention of two developments highly relevant to the topic of transcription standardization. The first is the new sign phonetic notation system proposed by Johnson and Liddell (201 1), which permits description of the formational properties of signs in exhaustive detail. Through testing and refining by many users, this system could conceivably become the sign equivalent of the IPA for spoken languages, filling a longstanding gap in the sign linguist's toolbox. Another fairly recent development involves the concept of ID-glosses, promoted by Johnston (2010) and others as a solution to the cumbersome variation in glossing conventions developed by different researchers for the same sign languages. …