The first 0 – 4 years are the most important years of the learning process of a child’s life. It is generally expressed that a child’s brain can perform like a sponge in early education, and that it can soak up a wealth of information which is retained for most of its life. Much of our knowledge could be described as being acquired in a mechanical or programmed sort of way during these early years, whereby a child learns to crawl, sit, stand, walk or talk without being shown or forced to do so. However, with regard to language acquisition, according to the ‘Behaviourist’ Perception (B.F. Skinner) children learn through training and start from scratch. This theory bases its beliefs on everything being determined through the environment, whereby “’conditioning’ that is through imitation” Singleton, D (1989:122) and habit development forms the basis of language acquisition.
On the other hand the ‘Nativist’ approach (N. Chomsky) contradicts this line of thought. This theory argues that there is a ‘poverty of stimulus’ in earliest environmental existence and that the child is born with an innate biological language faculty which steers and forms language acquisition, and that humans are equipped with a language acquisition device (LAD). Singleton (1989). The “argument here is age related having to do with the early emergence of language in the young child”. Singleton (1989:188). While each writer has his particular view on language acquisition, there is perhaps not enough evidence in either to fully support either theory on a stand-alone basis (course work 30.09.09).
Both vocal and sign language acquisition go through different stages, during which communication are developed. This can be relayed in the form of body, spoken or signed language and is acquired gradually. It is crucial for a baby to learn its first language from an early onset in order for him / her to articulate the language to a proficient standard. This is evidenced by the ‘Critical Period Hypothesis’ which is believed to be vital in the acquisition of first language (L1). During this period learning a language takes on a natural course, however, it is believed that “….. the duration is limited within well-defined and predictable termini” Singleton (1989:32). In this regard the critical period is said to be determined some time before puberty, after which is it considered to be impossible to reasonably acquire any language without initially acquiring L1 from an early onset. This has been evidenced with several case studies, the more extreme cases being more commonly known as the ‘wolf children’, (course work), whereby the children were not introduced to any language until their teens a result of which they had very little spoken language, if any at all. There are beliefs that the critical period can begin as late as 2+. As a mother, it is my experience that the critical period for L1 commences from as early as birth to a couple of months for any proficiency in a language to be achieved.
For Deaf children to acquire their first signed language the different stages tend to follow in the same process as with a hearing child, both of whom experience similar patterns until around the 8 – 10 month stage. Emmorey (2002). There are some significant events that occur during the initial process, many of which are identical between both hearing and Deaf children. Accordingly, it is noted that “…. Deaf children acquire sign language, like British Sign Language or American Sign Language, following the same stages as hearing children do in their acquisition of a spoken language” Byrne-Dunne (2005:S106). It has been argued that hearing children can hear sound from within the womb, from which you might conclude that they would progress at a faster rate than a Deaf baby. However, given that all babies experience similar development patterns in the first few months of their babyhood, it bears little advantage in their early development in acquiring a language.
Indeed, once a Deaf baby reaches approximately eight months of age, they begin to progress at a quicker rate than a hearing child. It is understood that the reason for this is that the vocal tracts of hearing babies are underdeveloped at this stage, which inhibits them progressing at the same rate as a Deaf signing child. Due to the earlier motor development of hands rather than the vocal tract of a hearing child, Deaf children with sign language tend to be able to produce their first lexical sign around the eight month mark, whereby in the case of a hearing child, due to their vocal tact not being sufficiently developed at that stage, they are unable to make audible words. Emmorey (2002)
Different Stages of Language Acquisition
There are several different stages in the acquisition of sign language outlined below, which form the bases of both spoken and signed languages, however, the stages at which they occur may vary slightly from one child to another, Crystal (1997). The stages for the acquisition of sign language for a Deaf child are described as basic biological noises; cooing and laughing/hand movement; vocal play/manual play; manual babbling and melodic utterances/visual utterances (course work). These developments take on the form as follows – material obtained from both coursework presentations and Crystal (1997):
Basic Biological Noises (Stage 1):
These begin to occur in the first few weeks of a baby’s life when inaudible noises can be heard and crying is a usual occurrence. Generally at this stage crying would be as a result of being distressed due to a soiled nappy or if s/he is hungry. Depending on the degree of discomfort the crying will lengthen and intensify or shorten in duration. This along with other sounds of eating, sucking, burping etc., is normal in the first 0 – 8 weeks of a baby’s new life. Although I cannot say for sure at what point a baby can visually see clearly, from my own experience, generally strong eye contact is made quite early on and can be very strong between both the mother and child insofar as the child following the movements of their mother and grabbing the mother’s finger if in close contact. As all babies react in similar ways at this stage, there are no indications as to whether a baby can hear or not.
Cooing Noises/Movements (Stage 2):
Around the 8 – 20 week stage, cooing, chuckling and laughing with hand movement is experienced. Crystal (1997). At this point in time “……. the child responds to the mother’s smiles and speech. Then around four months, the first throaty chuckles and laughs emerge”. Crystal (1997:236). Babies tend to be in a more settled state and more familiar with their surroundings. Eye contact becomes stronger and the emergence of more blowing or strange sounds starts to form. Their cry tends to be lower in pitch and more like a ‘telling you or asking you something’ as opposed to the high or sometimes screeching pitch sounds. As they progress sounds start to become stronger and more repetitive and can be followed on by the double syllable sounds (usually mistakenly identified as the baby trying to say mother or father in the case of hearing parents). Towards the latter stage open hand gestures, such as waiving arms, flexing of fingers and both hands are experienced which will eventually form the basis of sign language. Hearing and Deaf babies are still very similar at this stage of language development.
Manual Play (Stage 3):
When a baby reaches the age of approximately 20 weeks sounds are produced and manual signs come into play. As Deaf babies cannot hear themselves or anyone else, any sounds made are of no relevance insofar as speech is concerned, even though they might bear a great resemblance to that of a hearing child. Some sounds are more consistently repeated and may appear to sound like ‘real’ words, i.e. vowels and consonants, however, this is not the case in either the hearing or Deaf child. Definite movements with more repetition, clapping and other mannerisms and activities, with or without interaction, begin to take on form, which brings great enjoyment to both the mother and child. Both hearing and Deaf babies are still at a comparable stage and therefore have a similar vocal output as each other.
Manual Babbling (Stage 4):
From anything between around the 8 – 10 month mark manual babbling begins. As outlined in course presentations, manual babbling takes into account:
▪ more frequent and stable groups of movement; ▪ repeated use of the same handshapes; ▪ the moving from one handshape to another ▪ the sequences takes on a more sign-like structure, and ▪ babbled utterances may look like sign but have no meaning.
Up until this stage of language development there is very little difference between hearing and Deaf babies, who also babble in their first 8 – 14 month before their first articulated sign. “Just as hearing babies babble prior to producing their first word, Deaf babies babble with their hands prior to producing their first sign”. Emmorey (2002:170).
Generally infants would be cognitively and linguistically ready to produce their first lexical item during this time, however, as already mentioned first signs tend to appear earlier in Deaf infants due to speech development delays in hearing infants. At this stage Deaf babies repeat movement with the wrong handshapes. It is also documented by Meier and Willerman (1995) and Petitto and Marentette (1991) cited in Emmorey (2002:171) that “Deaf infants produce significantly more manual babbles with repetitive, multicycle movements than hearing infants”. Like parents of hearing babies at the babbling stage, Deaf parents of Deaf babies will inevitably understand and be able to distinguish between their babies signed babbling and the correctly signed phrase (hearing parents would more than likely be unaware at this stage that their baby is Deaf, although may have some inclination that there is something not quite right). Nonetheless, these early inarticulate signs have no meaning in grammatical terms and can only be classed as gestures at this stage. As one might expect, Deaf parents will also try and help their child to articulate the handshapes repeatedly assisting them with the signs.
Visual Expressions / Signs
After the manual babbling stage things begin to take on a different shape as the baby attempts more articulate handshapes and movements, although many mistakes will be made at these early stages of development. Movements become more distinguished and some shapes of the hands begin to take on some kind of form. There could be repeatedly different handshapes used for the same word although the placement may be consistently the same. At this stage many mistakes are encountered particularly with the more complex handshapes, whereby infants would find it easier to use the full hand. For example they may try to sign mother and would more than likely at this stage use two ‘L’ shapes instead of ‘M’ but use the same movement, or perhaps the shapes could be wrong. Articulation outside of the signing space is also a common occurrence at this stage, as is the slipping of their hands. Emmorey & Reilly (1995).
The next step is the ‘baby sign’ stage when, just as hearing children produce baby words, signs are produced with more clarity and handshapes, orientation and movement becomes more coherent. However mistakes are still evident and more regularly experienced when producing the more difficult handshapes, articulation and hand configuration, Emmorey (2002). For example ‘family’ produced in Irish Sign Language may be construed as the ‘L’ shape instead of the ‘F’, the latter being too difficult for them to acquire until later years, and perhaps the wrists may not be crossed or the hands may be facing the wrong way. This can also be said for the phonological aspect of sign language, or the system of movements, whereby later development is more accurately established once articulation and configuration has been mastered. In any event, not much is known about the study of sign language phonology after the age of 2 years, as studies are now only really underway, Emmorey (2002). However, as outlined by Emmorey, research has suggested that the acquisition of phonological systems proceeds in the same way for both the hearing and Deaf infants, from the babbling to early stages of language acquisition.
You can safely say that motherease has been quite a large part of the learning process throughout all the stages of language development, as is with a hearing child. The parents of a Deaf child will use it whenever signing or relating to their child. Movements, articulation and signs will be slower and maybe larger in size and perhaps repetition of signs will also be used. It appears that motherease functions in the same way for hearing infants as for Deaf infants; however, as the latter is more visually oriented, this tends to facilitate them more easily in holding their visual attention and may assist in discerning individual signs. Similarly, you could say that an adult version of motherease is used in the case of sign language acquisition as a second language for adults, whereby slower comprehension and sign recognition is experienced by the adult, in particular with regard to fingerspelling (course work).
I believe that all children, whether hearing or Deaf, acquire some type of home sign at the early stages of development. This can take on several forms, for instance the child holding their arms to you when they want to be picked up, pointing to something they want or, in the case of an adult, imitating going to bed when trying to indicate that it is bed time. Deaf children of Deaf parents would have an added advantage over a Deaf child of hearing parents insofar as early acquisition of a sign language is concerned. In most cases where the parents are hearing it can come as a major shock to them when they realise that their child is Deaf and this can cause delays in establishing the best route for the child to take, i.e. whether to teach the child to a sign language or to go the mainstream education route.
I feel that language acquisition from an early onset is imperative so that a child may eventually speak or sign proficiently and be fully understood. It would appear that the more interaction with parents, the better the language development whether it be spoken or signed. However, in the case of Deaf children born to hearing parents (90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents), they would more than likely miss out on the early developmental stages of acquiring sign language. This, through no fault of their own, would be due to a lack of knowledge of the Deaf community or culture, or any facilities that may be available to them. Both Deaf and hearing babies go through very similar, if not identical, stages of language acquisition in the early months. It is not until after the babbling stage or even later that the parents may become aware that something is not quite right. Detection that there may be a hearing defect is only ascertained when they notice that the child may only respond inconsistently to certain sounds, noises or vibrations. Unfortunately for the Deaf baby by the time it has been established that they cannot hear, it is usually too late for the child to have experienced a first language acquisition and, therefore, a delay in the process will be experienced. Although tests are widely used in the UK, USA and other places to ascertain whether or not a child can hear, there are no tests available in Ireland. The lack of this service results in a delay of the language acquisition process - with all the attendant difficulties - for a Deaf child born to hearing parents. This deficiency should be urgently prioritised by all those with a duty of care in this State.
Byrne-Dunne, D, 2005: Deaf Worlds 2005 Vol 21 (2): Language Acquisition of a Deaf Child in Ireland. Forrest Books 13/05/2005
Crystal, D. 1997: The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Emmorey, K & Reilly, J (1995): Language, Gesture & Space: Prelinguistic Gesture in Deaf and Hearing Infants. Mahwah NJ London: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates.
Emmorey, K. 2002: Language, Cognition and the Brain. Insights from Sign Language Research. Mahwah NJ London: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
Meier, R. P., & Willerman, R (1995): Prelinguistic Development in Deaf and Hearing Infants in: Emmorey (ed.) Language, Cognition and the Brain. Mahwah NJ London: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
Petitto, L.A., & Marentette, P.F. (1991): Babbling in the Manual Mode: Evidence for the Ontogeny of Language in: Emmorey (ed.) Language, Cognition and the Brain. Mahwah NJ London: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
Singleton, D. 1989: Language Acquisition: the age factor. Clevedon, Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Thorvaldsdottir, Gudny Bjork 2009: Language Acquisition & Deafness: Interpretation. Presentation, Trinity College CDS. Modified 30/09/09.
Thorvaldsdottir, Gudny Bjork 2009: Pre-linguistic Development in Children (birth to one year). Presentation, Trinity College CDS. Modified 14/10/09.