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Advances in the Sign-Language Development of Deaf Children$

Brenda Schick, Marc Marschark, and Patricia Elizabeth Spencer

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780195180947

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195180947.001.0001

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Understanding Sign Language Development of Deaf Children

Understanding Sign Language Development of Deaf Children

(p.3) 1 Understanding Sign Language Development of Deaf Children
Advances in the Sign-Language Development of Deaf Children

Brenda Schick

Marc Marschark

Patricia Elizabeth Spencer

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter begins with a discussion of historical reports of sign language. It then discusses sign language in the education of deaf children, attempts to join the “oral” and “manual” approaches to education into what was originally referred to as “the combined system”, progress in linguistic studies of sign language development, and the contemporary context for studies of sign language development.

Keywords:   sign language, deaf children, linguistics, language education

As long as we have deaf people on Earth, we will have Sign Language. It is God’s noblest gift to the Deaf.

—George W. Veditz, Preservation of the Sign Language

Sign language is not new. In fact, some investigators have argued that the first human languages were signed rather than spoken (see Armstrong, 1999; Stokoe, 2001). Discussions about the role of sign language in learning and in deaf education also have been around for a long time (e.g., Bartlett, 1850; Bell, 1898; James, 1893), as have descriptions of its place in the lives of deaf people and their communities (see Baynton, 1996; Woll & Ladd, 2003). Attempts to understand the structure of signed languages as linguistic systems, on the other hand, are relatively recent. At just more than 40 years old (Stokoe, 1960/2005; Stokoe, Casterline, & Croneberg, 1965), sign language linguistics is still quite young given the typical pace of scientific progress. On this time line, research on the sign language of deaf and hearing children acquiring it as a first language is still in its metaphorical childhood (e.g., Boyes Braem 1973/1990; Kantor, 1980; McIntire, 1977; Schlesinger & Meadow, 1972), and our understanding of deaf children’s acquisition of specific sign language structures and their use in discourse is a mere babe in arms (see Morgan, chapter 13 this volume).

The earliest discussions of the development of sign language in deaf children, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, relied primarily on theoretical/philosophical arguments. Over the next 50 years or so, observations of school-age deaf children were added to the argument, based on the dubious assumption that their language repertoires and performance reflected the impact of sign language as a first language (see below) and thus demonstrated its value—or lack there of, depending on the particular observations cited and the perspective of the (p.4) commentator. Today, investigators are examining deaf children’s sign language development in both naturalistic contexts and controlled testing situations. Such studies are providing a better understanding of deaf children’s language competence (their implicit knowledge of language), the course of development, and pragmatic aspects of their conversational interactions with language models.

With increasing breadth and depth in the study of children’s sign language acquisition, we are now seeing advances in several domains at once, with evidence of research synergism that reveals generalizations about the nature of how deaf children learn language, the role of sign language in other aspects of development, and language itself. However, the history of signed languages within society and debate about its appropriateness in educating deaf children has influenced research and researchers in this field in ways that are not often obvious but always lurking in the background. The field also has been shaped by the fact that, as a young one, its investigators have come from diverse backgrounds: linguistics and language development to be sure, but also cognitive and developmental psychology, anthropology, communication science, sociology, neuropsychology, deaf education, sign language interpreting, and others. Moreover, in contrast with researchers studying development in most other languages, those involved in research on sign languages (given that they are usually hearing people) are often not native and sometimes are not even fluent users of those languages. Although these researchers are usually guided by deaf assistants and consultants, it is useful to keep in mind that had existing research been driven from within the community of deaf signers, rather than from outside, it might have taken a very different route—and it still may.


The use of sign languages is well documented. Historical records from both Western and Middle Eastern cultures indicate that deaf people and Deaf1 communities that used sign language have existed for at least 7,000 years. In Plato’s Cratylus (360 B.C.), we see one of the earliest considerations of sign language, as Socrates poses the question, “Suppose that we had no voice or tongue and wanted to indicate objects to one another. Should we not, like the deaf and dumb, make signs with the hands, head, and the rest of the body?” In the fifteenth century, the courts of the Ottoman sultans included hundreds of deaf people whose responsibilities included teaching sign language to the rest of the court (p.5) (Woll & Ladd, 2003). In this case the issue was a social-political one, as it was deemed inappropriate to speak in front of the sultan.

One of the best-known historical examples of a signing deaf community is from the North America in the 1600s, in Scituate, Massachusetts, the second oldest town in Plymouth Colony. Members of the large deaf population of Kent, England, had immigrated to Scituate, and their sign language took root in the New World. By the 1690s, many of those families and deaf families from other Massachusetts towns had moved to Martha’s Vineyard. There, intermarriage led to an extremely high rate of deafness, and signing was a natural and accepted form of communication long before the first school for the deaf was established (Groce, 1985).

Such reports of communities of persons who signed provide us with some understanding of the lives of deaf people in earlier times. However, other than the occasional observation that a particular child or group used a signed language, there is little to be gleaned from such accounts that suggests any particular interest in sign language as an object of linguistic study or in the sign language development of deaf children. There are few documented accounts of how adults actually produced sign language, and no historic records of children’s productions, as opposed to their interpretations, have come down to us.


Looking to history for early uses of sign language in the education of deaf children, there is relatively little information beyond isolated descriptions of particular individuals and the occasional writings of several educational pioneers. For the most part, it appears that early efforts at deaf education involved a focus on language learning through reading and writing, what later came to be called the natural method, rather than either sign or speech. In the late 1400s, for example, the Dutch Humanist Rudolphus Agricola described a deaf person who had been taught to read and write, thus offering one of the first suggestions that deaf individuals could be educated effectively. His work was later elaborated by the Italian mathematician and physician Girolamo Cardano, who, in a 1575 book, advocated for the education of deaf children, citing their ability to “speak by writing” and “hear by reading.” The Spanish Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de Leon also is frequently noted as at least a candidate for the title of “father of deaf education.” In Spain during the Renaissance, as in ancient Rome, sons could only inherit the wealth and power of aristocratic families if they were literate; thus, it was important that young deaf men acquire literacy skills. Ponce de Leon was highly regarded in this respect, and in his writings he described teaching the congenitally deaf sons of the nobility to read and write in Spanish, Latin, and Greek.

(p.6) In the middle of the eighteenth century, sign language was used in the world’s first government-sponsored school for deaf children, a national institution for deaf-mutes (now, the Institut National des Jeunes Sourds de Paris), established in Paris under the guidance of Charles Michel Abbé de l'Epée. Although he was not the first observer to recognize the use of sign language by deaf individuals (see Stokoe, 1960/2005), he developed a system of “methodical signs” (signes methodiques) by taking the natural sign language in use in the Paris deaf community and extensively modifying it to resemble spoken French. Most notably, de l'Epée added signs to represent various aspects of French grammar, such as tense, mood, articles, and prepositions, some of which are still parts of American Sign Language (ASL; e.g., indications of future and past). Later, Alexander Graham Bell (1898) referred to signing at the school as the “de l'Epée sign language.” de l'Epée saw sign language as a natural way for deaf people to communicate and with his successor, Abbé Roch Ambroise Sicard, advocated for its use in education.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, visiting from the United States, was impressed with the sign-language–based curriculum and spent several months at the institute with Sicard. It was there that he recruited Laurent Clerc, a deaf assistant teacher, to bring the curriculum, as well as the concept of methodical signs, to American and establish the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf) in 1817. de l'Epée’s “methodological” approach was not entirely a success in America, however, and Baynton (1996) reports that the “methodical signs were too unwieldy, slow, confusing, and difficult to remember for teachers and students alike” (p. 119). Other critics of the methodical signs argued that they were not natural and could not become a part of the language, and they were “opposed to the genius of the language” (Baynton, 1996, p. 121). Harvey Peet, a prominent educator of deaf children at the time, thought that while the methodical signs were useful for educational lessons designed to teach English, they would not be adopted into the natural sign language. He believed that in natural sign language, “syntax was not accidental,” and that changing it would destroy the language (Peet, 1857, cited in Baynton, 1996, p. 119). By the mid-1800s, the “de l'Epée sign language” had only a small following in deaf education.

For Gallaudet, sign language helped solve one of the major problems related to deafness, that of access to the gospel and salvation (Baynton, 1996). Gallaudet believed that education should develop the conscience of a moral and religious human being. He argued that by using sign language “the deaf-mute can intelligibly conduct his private devotions, and join in social religious exercises with his fellow pupils” (Gallaudet, 1948, cited in Baynton, 1996, p.18).

Ironically, although sign language was considered a means by which one could address the consciousness and soul—and was thought to be (p.7) superior to speech in the expression of emotions—even some of its supporters felt that sign language was inferior to speech in conveying abstract thought. Deaf leaders of the time, in contrast, expressed the value that sign language had in the deaf community. As expressed in the epigraph to this chapter by George W. Veditz, a leader in the Deaf community and a proponent of sign language in deaf education, who signed for one of the first recorded films of sign languages, sign language is “God’s most noble gift to the Deaf.”

Despite scientific observations indicating that spoken language was not necessary for deaf individuals in order to be able to think and reason (e.g., James, 1893), many hearing educators and philosophers still thought otherwise and claimed that deaf children must acquire vocal articulation and spoken language to be able to function cognitively at an abstract level. Adopting Samuel Heinicke’s “oral approach” to schooling for deaf children, established in Leipzig in 1778, Preyer (1882) advocated education through spoken language only in the United States, arguing that without speech deaf children might understand “lower order” concepts and abstractions but not the “higher abstractions” required for education.

Among educators and philosophers, the debate about the utility of sign language in educating deaf children continued and is well documented in the American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond. Commentators in the Annals during this period struggled with how a deaf child could “naturally” learn spoken language and, conversely, how sign language could be “natural” in a hearing family. For many, sign language was seen as a way to “unlock” the deaf child’s mind and provide an avenue for education. Bell (1898), for example—recognized as a vocal opponent of sign language for children with any hearing at all—nonetheless recognized that sign language might be useful for deaf children who could not learn language through any other modality. The majority of the educational establishment, meanwhile, saw sign language as dooming deaf children to limited intellectual growth.

Of course, there was ample practical evidence that sign language functioned as a real language within the Deaf community, and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Deaf community lamented that sign language had been excluded from the schools. Deaf adults rarely were given any substantial role in the governance of the school, however. Few deaf people served as school principals or superintendents, and probably no deaf person sat on a school governing board (Baynton, 1996). The Deaf community therefore fought back in the only manner available to them: They actively lobbied state legislatures and school boards to adopt sign language, and at each annual convention of the National Association of the Deaf, resolutions were passed that condemned the banishment of sign language from the (p.8) schools. Stokoe (1960/2005, p. 9) provided this example of one such resolution:

Resolved, that the oral method, which withholds from the congenitally and quasi-congenitally deaf the use of the language of signs outside the schoolroom, robs the children of their birthright; that those champions of the oral method, who have been carrying on a warfare, both overt and covert, against the use of the language of signs by the adult, are not friends of the deaf; and that in our opinion, it is the duty of every teacher of the deaf, no matter what method he or she uses, to have a working command of the sign language.

Nevertheless, while sign language continued to flourish in the Deaf community, it remained without a formal role in education as well as not seen as worthy of scientific investigation. As we now know, it eventually would take the civil rights movement in the United States and a new line of linguistic research before schools for the deaf would allow sign language a role in the classroom.


Although each side in the “war of methods” clearly has had isolationist supporters, there also have been individuals who sought some middle ground, in order to match each child’s abilities and needs. Several times over the past 150 years, there have been attempts to join the “oral” and “manual” approaches to education into what was originally referred to as “the combined system.” These systems typically have come from educators more interested in practical results rather than philosophical orientation (e.g., Westervelt & Peet, 1880), in an effort to promote integration and assimilation into the larger hearing community, as well as to development literacy skills. The combined methods of the nineteenth century lost out to oral education, however, and it was to be almost 100 years before they re-emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This time, the “combined” movement was fueled by a new recognition of the linguistic status of natural sign languages, the marked lack of success in teaching many deaf children spoken language, and, consequently, the need to rethink assumptions of some investigators about deaf children “lacking language” (e.g., Furth, 1966). There also were continuing concerns about low levels of literacy and other academic skills attained by most deaf students at a time when schools for the deaf in the United States were overcrowded, as a result of rubella epidemics.

In an attempt to teach deaf children the language that would be used in schools, several manual forms of spoken language were developed, collectively known in North America as manually coded English. These (p.9) artificial systems (e.g., signed English, SEE1, SEE2) generally used individual signs from the community’s indigenous, naturally developed sign language but followed rules of the spoken vernacular for syntax, word meaning, and morphology in order to allow (at least in theory) simultaneous signed and spoken language production (see Anthony, 1971; Bornstein, 1990; Gustason, Pfetzing, & Zawolkow, 1980). The reincarnation of the “methodological” approach largely disappointed again, however, and numerous reports exist of the difficulties faced in these attempts to adapt visual-manual language to grammatical structures of auditory-verbal languages (Gee & Goodhart, 1985; Mounty, 1986). Even today, there is little evidence that these systems increase the overall level of academic performance by deaf students, and they have not proven any more effective for promoting reading and writing than have natural signed languages, despite that being their raîson d'etre (Marschark, in press).

The lack of success evidenced by “combined” systems now has led us back to a re-emphasis on sign languages that developed naturally, over time, in various Deaf communities. By the late twentieth century, linguistic evidence of the sophistication and formal properties of these “natural” sign languages was available. In many countries, increased sensitivity to and valuing of the rights of minority populations led to greater recognition of Deaf people as members of a special group with its own language and, to some extent, cultural values and expectations and “ways of being.” It has now been demonstrated that when appropriate language models are available, deaf children acquire these languages efficiently and at least as early as hearing children acquire their community’s spoken language.

Some educational programs are beginning to support the development of deaf students as both bilingual—fluent in the sign language of the Deaf community and the language of the larger hearing community, perhaps in written form—and bicultural, with the ability to participate in both Deaf and hearing communities (see LaSasso & Lollis, 2003). There are also an increasing number of other countries who have adopted their Deaf community’s natural sign language as the language of instruction (see Ahlgren & Hyltenstam 1994; Hoiting, chapter 7 this volume; Mahshie, 1995). Unfortunately, there are still few evaluations of the extent to which bilingual education has been successful in providing fluency either in language of instruction or in enhancing academic achievement in various content areas. The “method wars” thus continue, stronger in some countries than others, and deaf children and their parents continue to face sometimes acrimonious debate and conflicting advice about the type of language system they should use and the most effective means of communication in the classroom.


Around the time that American Sign Language (ASL)2 was first recognized as a true language, following the work of Stokoe and his colleagues in the 1960s (e.g., Stokoe et al., 1965), there was rapid growth of research on both the structure and function of language development in hearing children.2 While supporters of spoken language training for deaf children continued their focus on improving speech articulation in therapeutic settings, those interested in sign language began to examine the use of sign language in mother–child interactions and home settings. The first such studies, appearing in the 1960s and 1970s, usually involved simple vocabulary comparisons between hearing children and deaf children (almost always of hearing parents). Several studies, however, sought to describe the linguistic and communicative aspects of mother–deaf-child interactions. Consistent with the investigations by Snow (1972), Newport (1977), and others focusing on the way that hearing mothers talk to their hearing children, most of that work examined the language of the mothers (i.e., motherese)—and tangentially about the reciprocal language produced by the children (see Volterra & Erting, 1990). These research studies were some of the first to consider Deaf parents as a resource, to help us understand the dynamics of parent–child interaction in a visual language, in comparison with a spoken language.

Several early studies of mother–child communication involving deaf children with hearing mothers suggested that poor maternal communication skills had negative effects on their children’s language learning (for discussion, see Beckwith, 1977; Goss, 1970; Schlesinger & Meadow, 1972). Comparisons with dyads in which the mother was deaf, however, demonstrated that early interactions coupled with effective communication had positive effects on language development as well as social-emotional development (e.g., Kantor, 1982; Meadow, Green-berg, Erting, & Carmichael, 1981). In particular, the quality of the mother–child relationship was found to be strongly related to children’s communication competence, and mother–child communication was strongly related to positive developmental outcomes in a variety of (p.11) other domains. Findings indicating that gestural systems developed even when mothers and deaf children primarily used spoken language (e.g., Greenberg, Calderon, & Kusché, 1984; see Volterra, Iverson, & Castrataro, chapter 3 this volume) opened new doors of sign language development research, and the nature of this reciprocal communicative-social-linguistic dance has been of interest ever since (see, e.g., Meadow-Orlans, Spencer, & Koester, 2004).

In perhaps the first study of its kind, Schlesinger and Meadow (1972) examined the effects that deaf children’s language had on their social interactions with their mothers, rather than the other way around. Their longitudinal study described the language development of four young deaf children (two of whom had deaf parents) acquiring sign language as a first language. Although the children varied greatly, Schlesinger and Meadow reported three consistent findings that were remarkable for the time and are still important today. First, they found that children’s use of sign did not interfere with their spoken language development. Rather, spoken language skill increased as the children learned more sign, a finding also reported by Crittenden, Ritterman, and Wilcox (1986; see also Yoshinaga-Itano, in press). Second, Schlesinger and Meadow observed that the language milestones of the four children they studied paralleled those of hearing children (see Newport & Meier, 1985), suggesting innate (Lillo-Martin, 1997) or cognitive-social-environmental (Bates, Benigni, Bretherton, Camaioni, & Volterra, 1977) invariants underlying language acquisition, regardless of its mode. Third, Schlesinger and Meadow found that the availability of sign language in families with deaf children greatly decreased the amount of “communication frustration” between children and parents relative to deaf children, a finding that was to lead to many studies of mother–deaf-child dyads in the years following.

All three of these findings led to lines of programmatic research in several laboratories, and the apparent similarity of language development by deaf children with deaf parents and hearing children of hearing parents provided a context in which the study of sign language development in deaf children blossomed in its own right. Not only did such investigations offer pioneering (yet modern) investigations of a new “kind” of language development, but the comparisons of spoken and sign language acquisition yielded, and continues to yield, new insights into the nature of language, its origins, and the relation of language to other aspects of development.

Unfortunately, unlike contemporaneous research on the language development of hearing children (e.g., Brown, 1973), the transcripts used in most of the early and more recent sign language studies have not been made available to researchers outside the original teams that conducted the research. This may be, in part, because sign productions are more difficult to represent in writing than spoken productions, but (p.12) a great deal is also lost in the written documentation of early spoken language, and investigators found ways to overcome that obstacle via the CHILDES project (see MacWhinney, 2001). Alternatively, this omission may simply reflect the youth of the field and the ongoing search for common methodologies—thus offering a new and exciting challenge (see Slobin, chapter 2 this volume).


Today, ASL and other natural sign languages are again being used in schools, but still without widespread acceptance in the education community, which continues to favor manual versions of spoken language. This time, the use of sign languages found in Deaf communities is accompanied by somewhat greater if still limited efforts to document their appropriateness and utility for educational purposes and subsequent literacy development. In this context, sign language development is not just interesting to those who are motivated by theoretical reasons, but schools, teachers, and families are coming to recognize their need to understand how a visual language develops and how it interacts with other aspects of development.

The available research in this area is not yet sufficient to provide these audiences with a clear roadmap of sign language development. North American researchers do not even agree on what types of signing constitute ASL (see Kuntze, 1990; see also Anderson, chapter 6 this volume), a language that is changing as it is used by a larger community than previously, one with a large number of second-language learners, both hearing and deaf. This is an interesting, natural situation worthy of investigation in its own right, as the great number of linguistic variations within the Deaf community and the diversity in sign systems to which deaf children are exposed reflect the unusual milieu that surrounds deaf children as language learners. In this milieu, classroom teachers often are not fluent in sign language, even when it is the (or a) language of instruction. In the United States, neither national certification of deaf educators nor most teacher training programs in deaf education require any minimum competency in sign language in order to teach. In fact, each of us has heard hearing teachers of deaf children claim that they learned how to sign from the children they taught. Deaf children thus are often faced with language learning environments that few hearing children would ever encounter: For many deaf children, most of their early language models are not fluent users of the language the children are learning. Their parents, like most hearing people, learn sign language as a second language, often through informal course-work and self-instruction without the benefit of using it daily across (p.13) various contexts or having fluent models (a challenge then shared by their children).

It is important to keep in mind here that the children we are describing represent approximately 95% of the population of deaf children (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2004). As a result of this situation, most deaf children do not encounter “good” examples of a full, rich language until they encounter deaf adults or deaf children from deaf families. Even in those cases, however, because most deaf adults were in a similar situation as children (i.e., with hearing parents), the signing they see from deaf adults as well as deaf peers will be quite variable. Together with the relatively degraded and restricted input they receive from their parents, this added variability in language models typically results in language delays that, in turn, make it all the more difficult to take advantage of fluent language when they are finally exposed to it (Erting, Prezioso, & O'Grady Hynes, 1990; Spencer, 1993a, 1993b).

The complexity of this language learning situation often appears to be missed or ignored. Research on sign language development has focused primarily on generalities, and most studies have involved a small number of children that are not necessarily representative of deaf children at large, and fairly brief language samples (see Tomasello & Stahl, 2004; see also Meier, chapter 9 this volume). All too often, in efforts to interpret data unambiguously and to demonstrate commonalities between deaf and hearing children, researchers have assumed simplistic accounts of development in which deaf children with deaf parents are presumed to be typically developing children. Little interest has been shown in determining the validity of this assumption or how to know whether any particular deaf child has a language disorder (vs. a typical delay). In reality, there is not research on what a language disorder looks like in ASL. In addition, only rarely has the possibility been considered that growing up with sign language might lead to cognitive and social differences worthy of investigation (Marschark, 1993; Stokoe, 2001).

Unfortunately, much of the available research on signed languages, particularly in developmental investigations, has minimized the linguistic diversity within the signing community. Kuntze (1990) thus argued that “an unfortunate side to the otherwise marvelous wealth of new information about ASL was that the focus of the linguistic analysis was unbalanced” (p. 76) in that linguistic study has focused on those aspects of ASL that seemed more ASL-like and put aside aspects of signing that seem to be influenced by English. As a Deaf adult and a researcher, Kuntze believes that linguistic inquiry has created artificial definitions of what is inside ASL, versus outside (reminiscent of earlier claims that signed languages were not worthy of study). At least with regard to ASL, the sociopolitical history of sign language alluded to (p.14) above thus clearly has influenced what researchers have investigated, a situation not far below the surface in studies of other sign languages as well. Importantly, the pressure in this regard is not all from the “outside”; influences from within the Deaf community and its supporters are altering the course of language research as well.

Beyond these issues of research theory and methodology, there are a number of more subtle complexities in deaf children’s language development that appear worthy of study. For example, those deaf mothers who grew up in hearing families may have very different social histories and parenting resources, as well as communication styles, from deaf mothers from multigenerational deaf families. These potential differences have usually been ignored when the language behaviors of “deaf mothers” are described. In addition, variations in the language learning environments provided to deaf children by hearing parents are often also overlooked. Only more recently have researchers begun to address how deaf children from hearing families can learn natural sign languages as well, enriching our understanding of how children learn visual languages (see Lindert, 2001; see also Hoiting, chapter 7 this volume).

In considering sign language growth in young deaf children, it is also important to keep in mind that language development and language learning are not the same thing. Language development typically is used in the sense of a natural or automatic unfolding of language along a regular path, as indicated by universal milestones relevant to language qua language. Language learning, by comparison, refers to language acquisition that requires some amount of effort on the part of both a learner and teacher(s), that is, intentional rather than naturally occurring activity. Although this distinction is rarely important in studies of hearing children (viz., only when those children have special learning needs), it is not one that can be viewed lightly in studies of the language used by deaf children. Language appears to develop relatively naturally among deaf and hearing children of deaf parents (given the above caveats) and among hearing children of hearing parents. Deaf children of hearing parents, meanwhile, typically have been taught language from the time they enter early intervention programming through their college careers.

It appears likely that these language differences between deaf and hearing children have a variety of influences on other aspects of development. To the extent that we ignore them, we ignore much of the need for a greater understanding of sign language development in deaf children—the practical need for language in social and educational settings—and risk overly simplistic accounts of children’s sign language that are applicable in only a minority of cases. Recognition and understanding of the complexity of this situation require concerted and collaborative efforts on both theoretical and practical fronts. But they (p.15) also carry potential for considerable gains with regard to broad issues of language development and the education of deaf children (Marschark, 2002) as well as a greater understanding of the majority of individuals who make up the Deaf community and eventually watch sign language develop in their own children.

In a similar vein, much of the research on sign language development to date has implicitly attempted to show how the development of ASL or other sign languages is no different than the development of any spoken language. One would have thought that the years of study seeking to document the elusive early sign advantage would have shown the importance of recognizing variability both in sign language and in deaf children (e.g., Meier & Newport, 1990), but several related issues remain unsettled. Lillo-Martin and Pichler (chapter 10 this volume), for example, appear to accept the full comparability of signed and spoken languages as proven fact, while Spencer and Harris (chapter 4 this volume) and Marschark (in press) question whether the two modalities might have slightly different developmental consequences, as evidenced in a variety of cognitive, neuropsychological, and psycholinguistic studies involving adults. In the broader context, while sociocultural studies have emphasized the uniqueness of Deaf culture, language studies have sought commonality of signed and spoken languages, their underpinnings, and their consequences.3

Several of the other chapters in this volume either explicitly (e.g., Slobin, chapter 2) or implicitly (e.g., Reilly, chapter 11; Schick, chapter 5) acknowledge that sign languages, as a group, may have typological differences from spoken languages. Recognition that signed and spoken languages may not be strictly comparable allows us to see what is unique in the development of a visual language and potentially different about the development of deaf children. The benefits to the study of language and language development may be the first to appear, but the implications for other domains of development and for the education of deaf children would not be far behind. To achieve this end, however, the study of signed languages and language development will need to more focus more on individual variation and entail more cross-linguistic comparisons (Kuntze, 1990). As Slobin (chapter 2 this volume) notes, “In order to make cross-linguistic comparisons—between spoken and signed languages, or between the acquisition of (p.16) different languages—it is necessary to work in a linguistic framework that is not biased toward languages of a particular type.” Slobin also notes that we need to be very careful that our tools and terms do not bias us toward making sign language look like spoken languages, lest those tools interfere with that which they are designed to investigate.

Despite the fact that researchers have focused on investigating those parts of the language that have fairly obvious counterparts in spoken language (e.g., phonology, syntax, pronouns, morphology), we have learned much about the different forms in which many of those aspects are expressed in visual versus auditory languages. This includes the use of space, nonmanual markers, or classifiers (see Lindert 2001; Loew, 1982; T. Supalla, 1982) to indicate meanings typically expressed by sequentially ordered bound and free morphemes in spoken languages. Some of these are described elsewhere in this volume (see, e.g., Hoiting, chapter 7; Meier, chapter 9; Reilly, chapter 11; Shaffer, chapter 12; Schick, chapter 5), but many more are to be explored. A better understanding of how visual languages develop will have direct impact on early intervention and educational programming for deaf children, improving opportunities and efficiency. Appreciating the language diversity among deaf children as well as between them and hearing children will allow new insights into both their language learning and the nature of signed languages. Perhaps most important, all of these advances will provide a context in which deaf children can thrive and be understood as individuals as well as members of diverse groups. And if some of them go on to join other investigators conducting research “from the inside,” areas of study will emerge that are as new and exciting to them as their language is to us today. What more could one ask for?


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(1) In this and the following chapters, “deaf” refers to audiological status, whereas “Deaf” refers to linguistic-cultural affiliation.

(2) Throughout this chapter, “American Sign Language” (ASL) and “English” are used generically to refer to all signed and spoken English languages. It is noteworthy that most of the research conducted to date on sign language development in deaf children has involved children in North America acquiring ASL. Although it is assumed that the principles underlying the development of ASL in that context are representative of any sign language in any naturalistic context, subtle and not-so-subtle variations due to culture, context, and educational methods suggest the potential for interesting study and erroneous conclusions.

(3) It is tempting to suggest that this orientation is a symptom of the hearing status of the investigators. However, such “blinders” may be less the consequence of a hearing—speaking chauvinism than reflection of many investigators' reaction to such a possibility. All too often, an apparent desire to support Deaf individuals and the Deaf community results in an uncritical embrace of all things Deaf and an advocacy of “equality” that denies potentially interesting differences and important variability.