Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Differences in the Use of American Sign Language Morphology by Death Children: Implications of Parents and Teachers

Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Differences in the Use of American Sign Language Morphology by Death Children: Implications of Parents and Teachers

Article excerpt

Newport (1988) has noted differences in how American Sign Language (ASL) is used by the following three groups of deaf adults: those with deaf parents (native signers); those, with hearing parents, who learned ASL upon entering school at age 5 years (early signers); and those who learned to sign after puberty (late signers). The present study extends this research to children by investigating the use of morphological inflections in ASL by native and early signers. Thirty deaf children between ages 3 and 9 years were asked to sign a story in ASL. The videotaped stories were analyzed for morphological and contextual complexity. Qualitative differences were found between native and early signers on measures relating to the aspectual complexity of signs but not on measures relating to the complexity of the utterance. Implications of these differences are discussed in terms of communication at home and ASL use in the classroom.

The use of American Sign Language (ASL) in deaf education has recently been an issue of great interest and debate. Faculty, parents, and students at all educational levels are looking for better ways to communicate with and convey information to students. Several researchers are calling for a bilingual approach in the classroom, with both ASL and English being used (Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1989; Mahshie, 1995). Although the presence of teachers who are competent in ASL and knowledgeable about Deaf culture will lead to better communication, this does not automatically ensure that better teaching or learning will ensue. Teachers need to take the communication skills of the deaf child into consideration when preparing a lesson plan. This is especially true today, when the needs of the deaf students in any given class can be so varied that no single method or curriculum can be expected to meet the needs of all such students. In the present study, I first focus on differences in ASL skills on a specific morphological system, then on differences in the use of movement by deaf children to add inflections for aspect, and finally on the educational implications of these differences.

Investigations by Mayberry, Fischer, and Hatfield (1983) and by Newport (1988) into the use of ASL by deaf persons with deaf parents (native signers) and by deaf persons with hearing parents (early and late signers) suggest that early signers are using signs as unanalyzed wholes rather than as complex signs with simultaneously produced layers of meaning. These studies also suggest that adult native and nonnative signers may be using qualitatively different language-processing strategies. If this is so, it would be important to know if these differences exist at young ages between native users of ASL and early signers.

Newport (1988) reports that deaf young adults (ages 22 to 36 years) and older deaf adults (ages 39 to 77 years) displayed similar patterns in the use of particular grammatical forms in ASL. This was true for both comprehension and production. Neither age nor the number of years of experience with signing was predictive of significant effects. In contrast, the age at which the deaf person first learned to sign was a significant factor. The signs of late learners (those first exposed to ASL after age 12 years or so) did not incorporate all of the required inflections.

Newport (1988) asks why it is that deaf children entering elementary school or adolescents learning ASL for the first time (i.e., early and late learners) are not as adept at using the morphological complexities of ASL as native signers. After all, physiologically an older child should have more available memory and better cognitive processing abilities than a younger child. One possibility is that an older child or adult's ability to see the gestalt of a sign may actually impair his or her ability to see the parts. In other words, early and late learners may be using the lexicon, or sign, as their basic linguistic unit of analysis. …

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