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LANGUAGES A ND LANGUAGE-RELATED SKILLS IN DEAF AND HEARING CHILDREN John D. Bonvillian, Keith E. Nelson, and Veda R. Charrow Introduction. Language can be studied from widely differing perspectives, and this diversity of viewpoints often forces new conceptions of the nature and use of language. An illustration of this point is the recent experiments in which chimpanzees have learned to use significant aspects of the sign language of the deaf (Gardner and Gardner, Pouts, Fouts and Mellgren). These experiments focused attention on the symbolic, developmental , and productive aspects of language and helped to suggest criteria for deciding what constitutes language behavior Traditionally, most linguists (e.g. Bloomfield 1933, Hockett 1958, Sapir 1966) had stressed the sound system (phonology) as a fundamental characteristic of language. But evidence from recent analyses of sign languages of the deaf requires the rejection of this kind of phonological criterion. The recent analyses show that a sign language may be a "true language, " (cf Abbott 1975) comparable to any spoken language in its use of a finite, though complex, set of units and rules which allow the generation of an unlimited variety of sentences. Any concept, no matter how abstract, which can be expressed in spoken language also can be expressed in a sign language. The rates at which ideas are conveyed in sign and speech transmission are also about the same. From recent research it is becoming clear that sign languages and spoken languages are similar not only in their fully-elaborated forms-as used by fluent adults--but also in their acquisition stages for young children. Sign Language Studies 12 After a discussion of these structural and developmental aspects of sign language, we review factors that influence the success or failure of a child--normal or handicapped--in acquiring either speech or sign. We then discuss the relationships among different ways of processing English or Sign [L.e. a specific system of signing, as English is a specific system of speech), along with the performance of deaf children in reading, writing, and educational achievement. Finally, we consider the implications of what is known about children's language and cognition for theories of development and programs of education. Sign language structure. The principal means of communication in the deaf community is sign language. Actually, many sign languages are employed (Battison & Jordan 1976). American Sign Language (ASL) and the sign languages used in other countries differ both in the construction of individual signs and in the structure of their sign sentences. However, each of the different sign languages appears from informal observation and early referential communication experiments (Jordan & Battison 1976) to be as effective as spoken languages in transmitting messages. A study by Bellugi (1972) showed that not only could similar information be communicated through ASL as through English speech, but also that the information was conveyed at virtually the same rate. American Sign Language is the colloquial sign language of the deaf in the United States, and it is usually the first language that a child of deaf parents in America will acquire. Two other varieties of an ASL-related sign language, Signed English and Manual English, are often used in schools for the deaf in the United States and in formal settings where both deaf and hearing persons are present. Both these language varieties depend directly on English grammatical structure, and they probably should not be considered distinct languages from English. Fingerspelling, also widely used, is the complete spelling of English words with a manual alphabet code. In this paper we will center our discussion on American Sign Language, because it has been the focus of most studies of sign language use and structure. After discussing the formation of individual signs we will consider what is known about grammatical structures in ASL. Each sign in ASL is a unique combination of a small number of distinct aspects of visible activity which have no meaning Bonvillian, Nelson, Charrow in themselves. Stokoe (1960) specified three different aspects of signs that distinguish a sign in ASL from some other sign: the place on or near the body where the sign is performed; the configuration (including its orientation) of the hand or hands; and the movement or...


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pp. 211-250
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