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What Can Be Learned from Signing Kids?

I first saw Laura Petitto, on film, when she was the person assigned with teaching Nim Chimsky, a chimpanzee named after Noam Chomsky, to use sign language. She has gone on to great things. I’ll mention a couple of her amazing studies.

Sign languages have phonetic units, and in one study (1 below), she demonstrated that deaf children learning to sign build their phonological representations in the same manner as hearing children with a sound phonology. She showed, too, that they lose the ability to detect the units of a non-native sign language at the same age hearing children do a spoken language – around their first birthday. The implications are really interesting, and beyond the scope of this post, but the decline in the ability to distinguish sign-phonetic segments and nonnative oral language phonetic contrasts is of interest in a number of ways.

In another study (2 below) her team studied the case of bilingual acquisition across the two modalities, hearing and signing. Three children acquiring Langues des Signes Quebecoise and French, and three children acquiring French and English (ages between 5 and 7 ). The results revealed that both groups achieved their early linguistic milestones in each of their languages at the same time (and similarly to monolinguals). This study also has important implications, particularly with regards to the question of when a second language should be introduced.

Dr. Petitto is all for starting as young as possible.

When I saw her with the chimp, I never would have guessed I’d write about her 50 years later.

As for teaching sounds – that’s what b4 does. You don’t know what b4 is?

1. New Insights Into Old Puzzles From Infants’ Categorical Discrimination of Soundless Phonetic Units (2006) Lang Learn Dev. doi: 10.1207/s15473341lld0203_1
2. Bilingual signed and spoken language acquisition from birth: implications for the mechanisms underlying early bilingual language acquisition (2001) J. Child Lang. 28

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