Sign Language Research Contributes to a Better Understanding of Language Acquisition, A Review of Directions in Sign Language Acquisition

By Evans, Charlotte | Sign Language Studies, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Sign Language Research Contributes to a Better Understanding of Language Acquisition, A Review of Directions in Sign Language Acquisition


Evans, Charlotte, Sign Language Studies


Sign Language Research Contributes to a Better Understanding of Language Acquisition, A Review of Directions in Sign Language Acquisition Directions in Sign Language Acquisition, edited by Gary Morgan and Bencie Woll (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2002. 339 pp. Hardcover $60.00. ISBN 9-027234-72-8 [Europe], 1-58811-235-7 [United States])

Directions in Sign Language Acquisition is a collection of current research studies that emphasizes the ways in which knowledge about sign language acquisition can contribute to a better understanding of language and the way in which children acquire it. Inspired by presentations and workshops at the 1999 Congress of the International Association for the Study of Child Language, the book is published as part of this organization's "Trends in Language Acquisition Research" series.

The introduction, by editors Morgan and WoIl, provides an excellent framework for the studies included in the book. The background information and terminology they discuss are also very helpful for readers who are not familiar with sign languages. Morgan and WoIl emphasize that these studies support diversity in theoretical and methodological approaches, in languages studied, and in the geographical and academic backgrounds of the contributors. This diversity generally contributes to broadening the scope of the text, but it also restricts connections between some of the chapters. Although the editors claim that the emphasis of the reported studies is both theoretical and practical, the primary focus is on theory, and readers must extract the applications.

The first chapter, by Marschark, is a review of research on early language development. It is very thorough and provides an excellent conceptual framework for the book but does not introduce any new research. Marschark clearly introduces the role of gesture as a theme that later chapters also address. Another key point he makes is that researchers need to view language as more than a linguistic system and consider it as a social-communicative system. Analysis must go beyond the grammatical structures and features of a language and include the context and interactions in which they occur.

In the second chapter Kamopp provides a description of phonological development in Brazilian Sign Language. Unfortunately, the theoretical background is not written in enough detail for nonphonologists or non-sign-language researchers to follow. he concludes that location and movement features are acquired earlier and more accurately in children's production of signs, whereas the process of acquiring handshapes is slower and involves more errors. These findings are similar to what Marentette (199$) discovered in studying phonological acquisition in American Sign Language.

In the third chapter Hoiting and Slobin introduce the use of the Berkeley Transcription System (BTS) as a tool for sign language research. They imply that using the same standards as the rest of the language acquisition ReId adds credibility to research in sign language acquisition. This also acknowledges transcription as a necessary tool. Hoiting and Slobin state that a transcription system should be designed to answer the questions we have. For example, it is not necessary to focus on detailed phonology when this is not the major interest of the research. Since the point of this chapter is to describe the new tool, they only briefly mention studies in which the BTS was used.

In chapter four Pizzuto discusses research regarding the development of Italian Sign Language in preschool children. She presents a broad spectrum of findings and information, but because of disorganization in her writing some ofhcr points are difficult to follow. Her primary emphasis is on the variability that occurs in children's use of grammatical structures. She accounts for this unevenness in several ways. First, inflectional morphology in signed languages is highly variable because it is often optional, which makes acquisition slow and irregular. …

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