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103 Proximalization and Distalization of Sign Movement in Adult Learners Gene Mirus, Christian Rathmann, and Richard P. Meier The typical situation in which an adult acquires a new language is one in which a hearing individual learns a new spoken language. What is the task that confronts this learner? In addition to acquiring a new vocabulary and new syntactic rules, our learner must learn to articulate any phonological segments that are not in the inventory of his or her first language. He or she must also acquire phonological rules and constraints that are specific to the new language. When a speaker of English learns Spanish as an adult, acquisition of that language is likely to be biased by prior knowledge of English phonology. The English native speaker may have difficulty pronouncing either of the two Spanish r sounds correctly because neither is found in English.1 Similarly, a native Spanish speaker learning English may impose phonological constraints of Spanish onto English. For example, Spanish does not allow words with initial clusters consisting of /sp/ or /st/ (compare English special, Spain, and star with Spanish especial, España, and estrella). Where English begins the word with a consonant cluster, Spanish has an initial vowel followed by /sp/ or /st/. This rule also characterizes the way in which many native Spanish speakers avoid particular initial clusters in English by inappropriately placing an unstressed vowel at the beginning of the word. With increasing frequency, Deaf adults are also confronted by the task of acquiring a second signed language. Their task is exactly comparable to the hearing adult’s acquisition of a second spoken language. But most adult learners of a signed language are probably not Deaf; instead most are hearing. And for most hearing adults, the task of learning a signed language is one in which they must acquire a second language that is also their first We thank Chris Moreland for his assistance with data collection and coding. We also thank Ann Repp for her assistance in analyzing the data that is reported in this chapter. Adrianne Cheek made helpful comments on a draft of this paper. We thank Siegmund Prillwitz Institut für Deutsche Gebärdensprache of the University of Hamburg, for allowing us to use equipment and space. Most especially, we thank the participants in this research project. This work has been supported by a grant (RO1 DC01691) from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to Richard P. Meier. 1. English does have an alveolar flap, as in the pronunciation of the word butter, that is very similar to the Spanish flapped r. However, the English flap is a noncontrastive allophone of the consonants /t/ and /d/, whereas the Spanish flap is phonemic. 07 (101-119) Chapter 7 5/21/01 3:32 PM Page 103 signed language. For researchers interested in second language acquisition, the adult hearing learner’s situation is an interesting one, especially with regard to the acquisition of the form of signs. Clearly, the hearing adult’s knowledge of English can readily interfere with the acquisition of ASL syntax ; however, not so clear is how English phonology could affect the acquisition of phonological structure in ASL.2 For example, the phonological inventory of English and that of ASL do not overlap. Thus, the task facing the adult hearing learner of ASL is quite stark: He or she must learn to use a new set of articulators for linguistic communication. To gain this ability, the learner must acquire a new motor skill, one that requires the use of the arms and hands as the primary vehicle for conveying meaning. In prior studies of how children and adults acquire motor skills, interesting patterns have been observed. Consider the arms and legs: These are jointed limbs in which certain joints, specifically the shoulder and the hip, are close to the torso whereas other joints, especially those in the hand or foot, are relatively remote from the torso. Since the work of Gesell (1929), it has been observed that infant motor development often proceeds from joints that are close to the torso to those that are far from it. More technically , infant motor development proceeds from proximal to distal articulators . The result is that infants seem to show relatively better control of proximal articulators and frequently use them in tasks in which adults would use more distal articulators. Examples come from the development of walking, in which an infant taking those first steps walks in a stiff...


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