Understanding Sign Language
Development of Deaf Children
Marc Marschark, Brenda Schick, & Patricia Elizabeth Spencer
As long as we have deaf people on Earth, we will have Sign Language.
It is God's noblest gift to the Deaf.
—George W. Veditz, Preservation of the Sign Language
Sign language is not new. In fact, some investigators have argued that the first human languages were signed rather than spoken (see Armstrong, 1999; Stokoe, 2001). Discussions about the role of sign language in learning and in deaf education also have been around for a long time (e.g., Bartlett, 1850; Bell, 1898; James, 1893), as have descriptions of its place in the lives of deaf people and their communities (see Baynton, 1996; Woll & Ladd, 2003). Attempts to understand the structure of signed languages as linguistic systems, on the other hand, are relatively recent. At just more than 40 years old (Stokoe, 1960/2005; Stokoe, Casterline, & Croneberg, 1965), sign language linguistics is still quite young given the typical pace of scientific progress. On this time line, research on the sign language of deaf and hearing children acquiring it as a first language is still in its metaphorical childhood (e.g., Boyes Braem 1973/1990; Kantor, 1980; McIntire, 1977; Schlesinger & Meadow, 1972), and our understanding of deaf children's acquisition of specific sign language structures and their use in discourse is a mere babe in arms (see Morgan, chapter 13 this volume).
The earliest discussions of the development of sign language in deaf children, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, relied primarily on theoretical/philosophical arguments. Over the next 50 years or so, observations of school-age deaf children were added to the argument, based on the dubious assumption that their language repertoires and performance reflected the impact of sign language as a first language (see below) and thus demonstrated its value—or lack thereof, depending on the particular observations cited and the perspective of the