- The resilience of language: What gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language by Susan Goldin-Meadow
In The resilience of language Goldin-Meadow reflects on her more than thirty years of fascinating research on language development in deaf children with no exposure to any conventional language model. This research is part of a larger investigation—the search for ‘resilient’ or invariant language properties that could potentially be part of our genetic endowment.
In the first part of the book, GM sets the stage by reviewing some of the most significant results, findings, and theories in the field of language acquisition. She outlines a research program—to use variation in the linguistic input and environment as tools to investigate how they affect language development. The particular question addressed here is: are there any universal linguistic properties that do not depend on variation in the input or the environment? The author calls such properties ‘resilient’ and notes that deprivation studies provide a rare opportunity to witness positive evidence of resilient language properties.
The extreme condition of variation in linguistic input is its complete absence. Such rare circumstances arise in cases of deaf children who have not been exposed to any conventional language model yet nevertheless possess normal intelligence and are brought up in a normal social environment. The second part of the book is devoted to introducing some of the highlights in the longitudinal study of ten such children. Remarkably, all ten children have invented their own rudimentary sign languages. Careful analysis of these languages reveals systematic organization and many linguistic patterns that are characteristic of the languages of children acquiring conventional sign languages as well as that of hearing children acquiring their native tongues. Like any language, the systems invented by these deaf children can be said to have several levels of organization. Their initial set of gestures evolves into a stable lexicon, in which several categories serving different grammatical functions can be distinguished. The beginnings of syntax and morphology can be seen as well in systematic word order patterns and particular thematic role markings.
The book also briefly reports on an analogous study of Chinese deaf children, whose invented sign systems were in many respects surprisingly similar to the American deaf children’s systems. GM also explored gesture creation in adults under several different experimental conditions.
The last section of the book concentrates on the significance of the empirical and experimental data presented earlier. This is where the important and interesting question of ‘innateness’ is addressed. GM proposes that innateness should be assessed in terms of ‘developmental resilience’. She makes several thought-provoking speculations about how environmental factors coupled with a bioprogram could constrain cognitive functions, resulting in an output that will be language-like.
The book is broadly accessible to anyone interested in the questions of what lies at the core of language, how language might have developed evolutionarily, and how it might be learned. Those who desire a more detailed description of methodologies and a theoretical assessment of the author’s claims can refer to the extensive reference list at the end of the book.