Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

In or out? Spatial Scale and Enactment in Narratives of Native and Nonnative Signing Deaf Children Acquiring British Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

In or out? Spatial Scale and Enactment in Narratives of Native and Nonnative Signing Deaf Children Acquiring British Sign Language

Article excerpt

Age of sign language acquisition varies enormously: Some deaf children from hearing families learn to sign when they start school, some later in childhood, some later in life, and some not at all. These highly variable and unusual language-transmission patterns with sign languages provide a testing ground for notions about a critical or sensitive period for language. A range of studies have shown clear age of acquisition effects in adult signers such that the earlier a sign language is learned, the better the linguistic performance later in life, both in production and in perception (see Mayberry 2010 for a review).

Fewer studies have examined critical period effects in deaf children, but some differences have been found between deaf children in deaf families (hereafter, DD) and deaf children in hearing families (hereafter, DH) in both linguistic and cognitive abilities. For example, Coutin (2000) found that fiveto eight-year-old DD children acquiring French Sign Language (LSF) scored significantly higher on false-belief tasks than DH children in the same age range, suggesting that theory of mind is also affected by age of sign language acquisition (cf. also Morgan and Kegl 2006). Furthermore, it appears that some differences between native and nonnative signers (e.g.,joint attention) might begin to emerge as early as infancy partly due to interaction with deaf versus hearing parents (Kyle, Ackerman, and Wo 11 1987; Waxman and Spencer 1997).

In the current study we investigate the use of spatial scale and enactment (via constructed action, or CA) in British Sign Language (BSL) narratives of deaf native and nonnative signing children aged eight to ten. Given that a wide range of age of acquisition effects that have been found at various levels in adults, and given the various differences in acquisition of theory of mind in native vs. nonnative signing children and eye gaze patterns used by deaf and hearing parents, we expect to find some differences in the combined use of spatial scale and enactment in native vs. nonnative signing children's BSL narratives.


Spatial Scale

Signers use the space in front of them in a variety of communicative ways.The most commonly discussed split is between a large-scale use of space (where signers use the space as if they were interacting with people or objects on a real-world scale) and a small-scale use of space (where signers use their hands to represent all or part of an entity on a small scale in front of the body). Terminology for these and other various uses of space (and related perspectives) are shown in table 1. For the purposes of this article, we are interested in childrens use of large-scale space on the one hand (what we refer to as character scale) and their use of small-scale space, pointing space, and non-locative space on the other. We combine the latter three uses of space into what we call observer scale.

Large-scale and small-scale uses of space (which correspond to the various types of space shown in table 1) are often described in terms of the prototypical depicting constructions that signers tend to use with each. Depicting constructions are predicates of location, motion, and/ or handling and are considered to be part of the productive lexicon, which consists of constructions that are highly variable and weakly lexicalized (Brennan, 1992). Small-scale space is typically associated with entity constructions that depict location and motion of all or part of an entity (see figure 1). Large-scale space is typically associated with handling constructions that depict the handling or manipulation of an object (see figure 2).

Although these patterns are prototypical, other patterns may occur as well. Entity constructions are often used with large-scale space (e.g., Aarons and Morgan 2003; Dudis 2004; Perniss and Ozyurek 2008; Quinto-Pozos 2007), which leads to a mixing of scales, with the signers body representing a referent on a large scale and the signers hand representing the same (or a different) referent on a small scale. …

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