ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

Language Acquisition of the Deaf: Native, Early, and Late Learner Differences

 February 1, 2003
Julie McCardle

Language Acquisition of Individuals who are Deaf: Native, Early, and Late Learner Differences

            Language acquisition for Deaf students has been of great debate in the field of Education.  The thought of language as the cognitive process involved in socialization of individuals is exemplified on multiple occasions, including at the Nicaragua School for the Deaf (Muma, 2001).  This school was established in the late 1970s and focused on the oral approach in the education of Deaf students.  Students were taught to read the Spanish language on the lips as well as read and write Spanish (Helmuth, 2001).

            Deaf children who were sent to the Nicaragua school were never taught any sign language since most children were born to hearing parents.  In the classroom, no signs were permitted of any kind.  However, outside of class children began using their own form of communication.  The playground, bus, and hallways were filled with gestures that gave birth to Nicaraguan Sign Language.  Teachers observed this phenomenon, and referred to this communication system as "mime" (Helmuth, 2001).

            Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) was discovered in the 1980s.  From its birth, linguists were able to watch this language transform into the present day language.  The Deaf students at the school became a Deaf community that created vocabulary and grammar for their native language (Helmuth, 2001).

            NSL was developed through a process of a pidgin language evolving into a creole language.  Signers use location to represent the relationship between objects or ideas.  Those students who entered the Nicaragua School for the Deaf after 1983 use more spatial representation than those individuals who entered before.  It is apparent that this grammatical construct is relatively new to this language and is in greater use by the younger students (Helmuth, 2001).

            Native signers do not realize the complex language that is in use.  Early signers only recognize the handshape and movement of each sign.  The multiple layers and constructs that lie beneath each sign are not apparent in these early language acquisition stages.  During age five to age ten, the individual begins building the phonemic and morphemic units that are part of the language (Galvan, 1999).

            The cognitive-social model of language has four levels of development.  First, words and vocabulary are converted into semantic language use.  Then the content of the language is balanced between explicit and implicit ideas.  Explicit ideas are the thought behind the message and implicit ideas are the individual's knowledge of the world.  Next, grammatical and pragmatic adjustments occur during language usage.  Finally, the individual must be able to use the language for metalinguistic purposes.  That is, the individual must be able to use the language to reflect upon the language.  When these four stages occur, the learning of a language has commenced (Muma, 2001).

            There are differences that exist between those individuals who learn sign language as early learners, young in life, and those who learn as late learners.  This supports the critical period hypothesis, the idea that if language has not occurred by a certain age, language will never occur.  Native signers are able to use morphological aspect of sign language in more appropriate situations than those who learn later in life (Galvan, 1999).  Morphological signs are those that are the smallest meaningful units of language.  It is the formation of words from other meaningful units (Valli, 2000).

            Early signers use signs as whole units.  More morphological inflections are used by early learners than late language learners use.  Late sign language learners lack the appropriate inflections during conversation.  A great difference exists between native language learners, those who have been exposed to language since birth, and early language learners.  This difference is obvious by the age of nine (Galvan, 1999).  When young Deaf children are exposed to sign language, more spatial grammar is used.  Young signers are altering the grammar and syntax of their native language and are establishing the norms for their language use (Helmuth, 2001).

            A new approach to Deaf Education in the United States uses both American Sign Language (ASL) and English in equal proportions and is referred to as the bilingual approach (Galvan, 1999).  This approach allows parents and teachers to expand and vary the social and emotional worlds of Deaf children.  Early exposure to ASL gives the Deaf individual communication with their environment.  By using mime or role-play to reinforce the English read in books, students gain a greater understanding of the grammar and use of English.  Adjusting the routines and daily activities of students, can expand the vocabulary and experiences of all.  Without this expansion of these elementary concepts, one cannot expect a child to understand the complex world that exists (Muma, 2001).


            Galvan, D.  (1999).  Differences in the use of American sign language morphology by deaf children:  Implication of parents and teachers.  American Annals of the Deaf, 320-324.

            Helmuth, L.  (2001).  From the mouths (and hands) of babes.  Science, 1758-1759.

            Muma, J., & Teller, H.  (2001).  Developments in cognitive socialization:  Implications for deaf education.  American Annals of the Deaf, 31-38.

            Valli, C., & Lucas, C.  (2000).  Linguistics of American Sign Language:  An Introduction.  Washington, D.C.:  Gallaudet University Press.

Cite this article?
McCardle, J. (2003) Language acquisition for the deaf: native, early, and late learner differences, Lifeprint Journal,, retrieved from

back.gif (1674 bytes)


*  Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy DONATE  (Thanks!)

Another way to help is to buy something from Dr. Bill's "Bookstore."

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)  

*  Also check out Dr. Bill's channel:

You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University  
ASL resources by    Dr. William Vicars