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American Sign Language: Linguistic Development of Children who use ASL

Lyndsey Spriggs

Linguistic Development of Children who use ASL

            American Sign Language has been proven to be a full language by many linguists, but do people who grow up using ASL as their natural, native language has the same linguistic development as people who develop a spoken language.  There is also a question about whether or not the development of ASL is processed the same physically as spoken languages are processed.  These are two important questions that need to be addressed for educators of the Deaf to understand the similarities and differences between their linguistic development and children who develop spoken language.

            Linguistic development of children learning a spoken language is fairly similar between children, but is it the same as learning a visual spatial language?  When children are between zero and twelve months old they should be babbling, and turning towards any speaker they hear. (Bates, 22)  It is said in the article, "Baby Sign Language" by Mary Ellen Strote, "hearing babies born to deaf parents ‘babbled' with hand movements that were clearly distinct from random hand movements and that reflected the rhythmic patterns found in sign language. (Strote, 1)  This clearly shows that children who are developing a visual spatial language such as ASL do have similar linguistic development at this stage.  Another stage that children learning a spoken language go through is at the age of 24 months, they will confuse pronouns.  This was thought not to take place when children are learning a visual spatial language because the pronouns are basically seen as iconic, or more like a mime.  This is due to the fact that it is just pointing to the person to whom you are referring.  In a study done on how ASL is processes in the brain, they observed a Deaf mother interacting with her two year old Deaf child.  When the child was talking with her mother, she continually confused the pronouns in ASL and her mother was correcting her by turning her hand in the correct direction.  It was decided that even if the signs seemed to be mimed, that due to the complexity of the linguistic structure the pointing "looses its iconicity". (Johnson & Wolkomir, 35)  This example also clearly shows that these children developing a visual spatial language instead of a vocal language are developing in the same manner.

            Another thing that is important to learn is if children learning ASL as their natural language as apposed to a spoken language, is if the children are processing these languages in the same place in the brain and in the same manner.  It was found that people who did develop ASL as a first natural language did process the language the same as those people who grew up on a spoken language.  The study used "positron-emission tomography (PET) scanner measured blood-flow surges" in the brain. (Bower, 45)  When they looked at the brains of people who grew up learning ASL as their natural language, they had the same blood flow patterns as the people who their natural language was spoken English.  These Deaf participants even had blood flow to the auditory cortex when they were watching another person sign to them.

            As you can see, it does not matter what type of language you are learning, as long as it is linguistically governed, the development and processing is the same.  The only difference that can be found is the normal variance found when dealing with individuals.  These findings are also very powerful for the argument that ASL is a true language and has all the linguistic aspects need to be considered a true language.


Bates, Elizabeth. (1996). Communication Skills and Disorders. Gale Encyclopedia of
               Childhood and Adolescence, 151, 20 -- 25.
Bower, B. (2000). Language Goes Beyond Sight, Sound in the Brain. Science News, 24,
               42 - 50.
Johnson, Lyn & Wolkomir, Richard (1992). American Sign Language: ‘It's not mouth
               stuff—it's brain stuff.' Smithsonian, 23, 30.

 Strote, Mary, E. (1982). Baby Sign Language. Fit Pregnancy, 1.


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