The Resilience of Language: What Gesture Creation in Deaf Children Can Tell Us About How All Children Learn Language

The Resilience of Language

I. Table of Contents

II. The Organization of the Book

III. How the Book Can be Used in a Course on Language Acquisition

IV. Additional video clips

I. Table of Contents

  • PREFACE
  • THE PROBLEM OF LANGUAGE-LEARNING
    • Chapter 1. Out of the Mouths of Babes
      Chapter 2. How Do Children Learn Language and How Can we Study Them Doing It?
      Chapter 3. Language-Learning Across the Globe
      Chapter 4. Language-Learning by Hand
      Chapter 5. Does More or Less Input Matter?
  • LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT WITHOUT A LANGUAGE MODEL
    • Chapter 6. Background on Deafness and Language-Learning
      Chapter 7. How Do We Begin?
      Chapter 8. Words
      Chapter 9. The Parts of Words
      Chapter 10. Combining Words into Simple Sentences
      Chapter 11. Making Complex Sentences out of Simple Ones: Recursion
      Chapter 12. Building a System
      Chapter 13. Beyond the Here-And-Now: The Functions Gesture Serves
      Chapter 14. How Might Hearing Parents Foster Gesture Creation in Their Deaf Children?
      Chapter 15. Gesture Creation Across the Globe
  • THE CONDITIONS THAT FOSTER LANGUAGE AND LANGUAGE-LEARNING
    • Chapter 16. How Do the Resilient Properties of Language Help Children Learn Language?
      Chapter 17. When Does Gesture Become Language?
      Chapter 18. Is Language Innate?
      Chapter 19. The Resilience of Language

 

II. The Organization of the Book

The book is divided into three sections.

The first section, "The Problem of Language-Learning," lays out the challenges language-learning presents both to the child trying to figure out how language works and to the experimenter trying to figure out how the child is figuring out how language works. In these five chapters, I provide an overview of what we know about the steps children take as they acquire language, a description of current attempts to explain language-learning, and a brief summary of what we’ve learned from studying language-learning under varying circumstances – in children exposed to different languages in various cultures across the globe, in children exposed to conventional sign language, and in children exposed to varying amounts of linguistic input within a single culture.

The second section of the book, "Language Development Without a Language Model," explores in depth a situation in which children are lacking input from a language model yet in all other respects are experiencing normal social environments – deaf children inventing their own gesture systems. In these ten chapters, I first provide background on deafness and language-learning, background that is crucial for understanding the unique circumstances in which deaf children of hearing parents find themselves. I then describe properties of the deaf children's gesture systems – how gestures function as words, how they are combined to form sentences, and how they are used to describe situations beyond the here-and-now. Finally, I consider where the deaf children's gesture systems might come from. I first entertain the most obvious hypothesis, that the children's hearing parents provide a gesture model which the deaf children adopt. I explore this hypothesis by examining the gestures of hearing parents of American deaf children, and also by studying the invented gesture systems of deaf children of hearing parents in another culture (a Chinese culture). The striking finding is that the American deaf children's gestures do not resemble those of their mothers – indeed they look much more like the gestures of the Chinese deaf children halfway across the globe than the gestures of their hearing parents in their own living room. The gestures that the hearing parents produce do not appear to serve as a model for the deaf children's gestures.

The properties that appear in the deaf children's gesture systems are resilient – they appear in the children's communications even though the children do not have a usable conventional language to guide their development. If these properties are so fundamental to human communication, why then do they not appear in the gestures of the deaf children's hearing parents? What is it about either the circumstances of acquisition, or the nature of the acquirer, that seems to lead inevitably to this type of structured communication system in the child?

A deaf child gestures about shovels

I tackle these questions in the final section, "The Conditions that Foster Language and Language-Learning." I begin by considering what the phenomenon of gesture-creation in deaf children can tell us about language-learning in all children – how do the resilient properties of language help children, deaf or hearing, learn language? I then explore the conditions under which gesture becomes language using an experimental approach with hearing adults. We put hearing adults in situations that simulate some of the conditions under which the deaf children find themselves, and ask whether those conditions lead adults to develop a gesture system that has some of the resilient properties of language. In the third chapter in this section, I consider what we learn from the deaf children about the age-old question – is language innate? I suggest that, although tired and worn, the word "innate" has not yet outlived its usefulness. What it needs is to be freed from genetics and tied to developmental resilience. I end by reviewing the resilient properties of language with an eye toward what we learn from them about how all children learn language.

 

III. How the Book Can be Used in a Course on Language Acquisition

This book is not a stand-alone textbook; that is, it was not intended to be used as the sole text in a course on language acquisition. However, I did write it with students of language in mind. I believe that the phenomenon of children creating language can be used as an excellent teaching device to get students to think hard about what communication is and what "counts" as language. Ask your students to imagine what it would be like if there were no language to learn and they wanted to make their wants, desires, and thoughts known to others. What would they do? It's an exercise that forces students to think about what is essential to human language.

Because the phenomenon of language creation is so compelling, the book can be used as an extended case study that supplements a traditional text in both upper level undergraduate courses and introductory graduate courses. I have used it along with readings from primary sources, each week supplementing the readings on how children learn a piece of conventional language, say syntax, with the chapters of this book describing what children can do in the syntactic domain without a conventional language – and it has worked remarkably well.

I realize, however, that there may not be time in a course to read the whole book. As a result, I have tried to write the book so that pieces can be assigned on their own. I have some recommendations for how the book can best be used in this way.

The first five chapters offer an overview of the problem of language-learning and can be used for this purpose. Because my focus is on the properties of language that are resilient, I have reviewed literature and highlighted topics that are often treated peripherally in traditional texts. For example, to my knowledge, no text on language acquisition has a chapter on how children learn different languages across the globe – traditionally, cross-linguistic facts are scattered throughout the text where relevant. But I think something very important can be learned by thinking about the learning problems children face when acquiring different languages – and, of course, by figuring out what's resilient across these variations and what's not. As another example, learning sign language in most texts is relegated to a chapter near the end of the book on atypical language-learning. Its lessons are rarely integrated into the main story of how children learn language. My focus on resilience makes a chapter of this sort central to the enterprise. So the first five chapters provide a short introduction to language acquisition taking a perspective that is slightly different from, but clearly complementary to, the perspective typically taken in textbooks on how children learn language.

How can the rest of the book be used in a course on language acquisition? I suggest to prospective teachers that chapter 6 be used to introduce the communication problem that faces these deaf children and that the other chapters in part two be assigned according to the particular emphasis of the course. For example, if it's methods and the problems of description that you'd like to emphasize, chapter 7 describes how to go about analyzing an unknown system that may not even be there, and thus presents the "how to" problem in an unusual and instructive light. If you'd like to focus on words and their composition, chapters 8 and 9 form the basics, supplemented by chapter 12 which is where nouns and verbs are discussed and chapter 13 which is where you'll find a discussion of generics. If the focus of the course is syntax, chapters 10 and 11 describe the structures children impose on the sentences they create and chapter 12 describes how this system develops over time. If you'd like to focus on the functions of language, chapter 13 describes the uses that the children's invented language serves, uses that go well beyond making requests in the here-and-now – to talking about past, future, and hypothetical events, to making generic statements about classes of objects, to telling stories, to talking to oneself, and even to talking about talk. Finally, if you'd like to focus on the role that environmental input plays in language-learning, chapter 14 describes the unconventional input that these language-creating children receive from their parents and chapter 15 takes a different approach to the same problem by looking at language-creating across the globe (on the assumption, which turns out to be correct, that the children are doing their creating in very different worlds).

Another possibility is to skip part two entirely and assign chapter 16 which summarizes the resilient properties of language described in part two and speculates about how these properties help children learn conventional languages. Chapter 16 is the heart of the book and as such provides a concise roadmap of part two. Chapter 17 explores what happens when adults who already have language are forced to create a gesture language. This chapter again encourages students to think about what language is and why it looks the way it does. Chapter 18 includes a discussion of innateness and language-learning and therefore can be assigned along with chapters 14 and 15 to continue the discussion of the importance (and non-importance) of linguistic input in language-learning (it can even be used to foster discussions of innateness independent of language acquisition in the context of a broader course on developmental psychology). Chapter 19 is a brief summary of what the phenomenon of gesture creation tells us about how all children learn language.

Because I think the phenomenon of gesture creation is instructive not only for experts in the field, but also for people who do not routinely think about language, I have tried to make the book accessible to readers who have no knowledge of language or linguistics. However, in order to make a convincing case that the deaf children in our studies really have invented a system that looks like language, I have to show you that their gestures can be described in the terms that work so well to describe natural languages. So I do have to use some linguistic terminology. But I've described the children's structural patterns minimizing linguistic jargon whenever possible and explaining technical terms when it has not been possible to avoid them. My goal has been to give you a feel for language as it comes out the hands of a child.

IV. Additional video clips

For supplementary video clips, please click here.