The Form of Early Signs:
Explaining Signing Children's
Richard P. Meier
Studies of early language development, whether in speech or sign, look to articulatory, perceptual, and grammatical factors to account for which words and signs children learn earliest and for how children form early words and signs (see Vihman, 1996, for an overview of phonological development in speech). Signs, like words, are structured, rule-governed, and learned. In the articulation of words and signs, the child's motor behavior is guided by his or her mental representation of those lexical units.
Although the acquisition literature on American Sign Language (ASL) and other signed languages is relatively large (for reviews of the literature on ASL, see Meier, 1991; Newport & Meier, 1985), the literature on the form of early signs is rather fragmented. Research on how children acquire their first signs has been animated by such issues as whether first signs appear earlier than first words and whether early signs are distinct from nonlinguistic gesture (e.g., Anderson & Reilly, 2002; Meier & Newport, 1990; Orlansky & Bonvillian, 1985; Petitto, 1988; Volterra & Iverson, 1995). There has also been attention to manual babbling, that is, to the prelinguistic precursors to children's first signs (Cheek, Cormier, Repp, & Meier, 2001; Meier & Willerman, 1995; Petitto, Holowka, Sergio, Levy, & Ostry, 2004; Petitto & Marentette, 1991). Now, however, increasing attention is being paid to describing the form of children's early signs and to proposing explanations for why children articulate signs in the way that they do.
As we seek to account for the ways in which young children produce signs, we can build predictions on several types of foundations: (1) The