LINGUIST List 12.1885

Tue Jul 24 2001

Review: Chamberlain et al., Language Acquisition by Eye

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  1. Patrick Bolger, Review: Language Acquisition by Eye

Message 1: Review: Language Acquisition by Eye

Date: Mon, 23 Jul 2001 18:01:17 -0700
From: Patrick Bolger <>
Subject: Review: Language Acquisition by Eye

Chamberlain, Charlene, Jill P. Morford, and Rachel I. Mayberry, eds.
(2000) Language Acquisition by Eye. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
hardbound ISBN: 0-8058-2937-7, xvii+276pp, $59.95.

Patrick A. Bolger, University of Arizona.

This volume brings to light some recent advances in sign
language research and how to incorporate it into general
theories about not only L1 and L2 acquisition, but also
reading development. The book discusses signed languages of
the US, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands, as well as
English. The first half of the book makes the case that
there are few meaningful differences between the
acquisition of signed and spoken languages once modality is
factored out. The second half of the book provides evidence
that invalidates the speculation that signed languages
impede reading development, and bolsters the view that the
relationship is positive. Each section contains useful
review articles that place the current studies in
perspective and considerably reinforce the general points
being made.

The study in the first chapter is experimental. By
measuring duration, repetition, and average body-appendage
angles (analogous to pitch contours in spoken language),
Masataka shows that native-signing Japanese Sign Language
(JSL) users exaggerate these characteristics when
conversing with infants versus other adults. He also found
that both deaf and hearing infants preferred infant-
directed signing over adult-directed signing. The reviewer
found the second part of the chapter somewhat difficult to
follow. Here, Masataka argues that the transition between
marginal and canonical babbling differs between deaf and
hearing infants mostly as a function of input modality, and
that the developmental paths between native-speaking and
native signing children are remarkably similar.

In the next chapter, Holzrichter and Meier investigate
prosodic attention-getting devices in child-directed
signing and compare them to research findings in child-
directed speech. From analyzed videotapes of interactions
between deaf infants and native ASL-signing deaf parents,
they classified instances of a few highly frequent signs in
ASL into the phonological categories of place and movement.
They then coded these elements along several sign-based
prosodic dimensions including cyclicity, duration,
location, and size, and determined how the prosody co-
occurred with eye contact. Overall, exaggerated prosody in
infant-directed signing co-occurred with infant
inattention. Thus, both deaf and hearing parents adjust
their linguistic behavior as a function of their child's
attention to it.

Next, Petitto discusses the claim that language and speech
are tied biologically. If they are tied, one should see
differences between the linguistic development of hearing
children learning spoken languages and deaf children
learning signed languages. Such differences should also
characterize hearing children learning signed and spoken
languages simultaneously, or signed languages exclusively.
Her research and other research over the past two decades
have shown that there are no differences greater than one
would find between two spoken languages. Linguistic
milestones reached by deaf children, such as the onset of
manual babbling and the one- and two-sign stages, all occur
at times similar to hearing children. Furthermore, the
relative proportion of linguistic and gestural
communication develops in parallel between hearing and deaf
children in all cases, as do the favored topics of

Conlin, Mirus, Mauk, & Meier point out in chapter 4 that
studying L1 sign language acquisition yields insights into
the more abstract levels of language development and
language processing. They perform a longitudinal error
analysis of the developing phonology of three deaf infants
acquiring ASL as their L1. ASL phonological components are
arranged broadly into place of articulation, handshape, and
movement. The children erred least on place, and most on
handshape. The variety of place errors was smallest, and
handshape largest, mirroring the error count. Furthermore,
the infants erred systematically with many one-way
substitutions, which suggests that certain phonological
forms in ASL are unmarked, or canonical. The authors
propose that along with input and perceptual factors,
motoric constraints on young children may also play a role
in shaping the ultimate phonology of signed languages.

In chapter 5, Marentette and Mayberry track the
phonological development of a hearing child of deaf parents
who was learning both English and ASL simultaneously during
her second year of life. The child produced location forms
most accurately, movement forms less accurately, and
handshape forms least accurately. Handshape and location
substitutions were highly systematic, whereas movement
substitutions were not. The authors argue that a naturally
emerging anatomical awareness facilitates the development
of location primes. Handshape accuracy on the other hand
develops more slowly, influenced by production ease,
salience, frequency, markedness, and a general preference
for primes with open finger positions.

In the only purely syntactic analysis in the volume, Coerts
revisits Coerts & Mills (1994). She suggests that a recent
discovery concerning Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN)
clears up some of her earlier research pertaining to the
age at which the SOV word-order parameter in SLN is set.
Subject pronoun copy in SLN involves copying the features
of the subject argument (be it overt or non-overt) and
realizing them redundantly in an indexical pronoun placed
either after the verb or the clause. Coerts controls for
instances of subject pronoun copy in the data from the 1994
study, and concludes that this clears up the variability in
these earlier data. Therefore, the original study shows
that these two children had acquired SOV word order by age

Finishing up the L1 chapters, Morford and Mayberry look at
how the presence or absence of early linguistic exposure
affects deaf children. They review several studies
indicating that early L1 learners outperform late L1
learners on a variety of cognitive tasks. Other studies
show that children born deaf and exposed late to ASL (late
L1 learners) performed worse in English than both hearing
L2 learners and late-deafened ASL users (who had all
received aural input before they became deaf). The authors
then focus on studies of language acquisition during the
first year of life. This research indicates that hearing
infants are sensitive very early on to the suprasegmental
features of their L1, but quickly gain sensitivity its
phonology and converge on word recognition from two
directions. After a review of the scant deaf research
paralleling the hearing research, Morford and Mayberry
argue that infants focus on the phonology of linguistic
input, but that most deaf children are not usually so
identified or provided signed input until infancy has
already passed. This delay leads to serious cognitive and
educational challenges for the typical deaf person.

Strong and Prinz open the section on deaf reading
acquisition by noting that research has yet to establish a
positive relation between ASL competence and English
literacy irrespective of parental hearing status. Tests of
ASL competence and English literacy correlated in their
study for all but older deaf children of deaf mothers.
Also, the more proficient ASL users outperformed the less
proficient, and deaf children of deaf mothers generally
outperformed deaf children of hearing mothers. When they
controlled for ASL level, however, they found differences
only among those children with low ASL proficiency, who may
depend more on communicatively reliable home environments.
They argue that the positive correlation between ASL
proficiency and English literacy may owe more to sheer ASL
proficiency than to parental hearing status, justifying the
role of ASL as an L1 foundation for all deaf children in
bilingual settings.

Next, Hoffmeister investigates the relations among English
literacy, ASL, and Manually Coded English. He found that
deaf children of deaf parents outperformed deaf children of
hearing parents on synonym/antonym identification in ASL,
but not on plural-quantifier identification. These
statistics, he believes, show that all the participants had
significant knowledge of ASL. Comparisons of a subset of
these children divided by residential versus day school
(intensive and low ASL exposure, respectively) show the
residential group performing better than the day-school
group on measures of Manually Coded English and English
comprehension, as well as on the ASL measures already
discussed. With age partialed out, all these measures
correlated positively. It was difficult for this reviewer
to distinguish between groups in the discussion.
Hoffmeister suggests that all the children in the study
seemed to transfer fairly easily between the two signed
linguistic systems, but that ASL still shows more promise
with respect to English literacy.

In their chapter, Padden and Ramsey show that the factors
correlating most positively with English reading scores are
deaf parental status, age of deafness detection, the
child's tenure at a given school, and ASL proficiency
scores. In an analysis of deaf children signing stories in
written English to their peers, the authors propose that
children in a residential program are usually taught
meaning-driven strategies that deaf children do well with,
whereas those in a public school are usually taught
decoding-driven strategies that seem to impede
comprehension. Finally, analyses of videotaped teachers
revealed that deaf teachers specifically, and residential
schoolteachers generally, are more likely to fingerspell
words and use associative chaining structures that present
the same information in different formats. The authors
argue that deaf children with more exposure to ASL culture
are at an advantage in learning to read English because ASL
culture provides more (and more appropriate) linguistic and
cognitive resources for them to draw from when establishing
links to English.

Switching to a strict analysis of teaching style, Mather
and Thiebeault show that, in contrast to storytelling
conventions in spoken languages, ASL stresses the use of
surrogate space to create reported speech. Next, via
analyses of 5 teachers videotaped while telling the same
story to children, the authors examined how the teachers
expanded or added to the text, and/or converted 3rd-person
reported speech or communicative acts to 1st-person.
Several teachers had difficulty using surrogate space,
causing confusion among the students. According to Mather
and Thiebeault, such confusion may hinder reading
development for deaf children, and teachers should be
trained better in this particular language skill.

In the last chapter, Chamberlain and Mayberry place the
current reading studies into context with the past,
present, and future. They recount how deaf research
initially focused on oral versus manual pedagogy, and only
later addressed deaf versus hearing families. The current
volume, representing recent methodological advances, shows
positive correlations between ASL knowledge and reading
ability, strongly supporting the notion that L2 proficiency
depends largely on L1 proficiency (Cummins & Swain, 1986).
Chamberlain and Mayberry then propose as a model for future
research Hoover and Gough's (1990) "simple view of
reading," in which linguistic comprehension and decoding
ability contribute interdependently to reading development.
They suggest that future linguistic comprehension research
should account better for reading level and age, two
factors discovered as crucial to the model for hearing
children. Future decoding researchers, on the other hand,
must also control for the larger signed lexicon of native
signers, and should also expect the nature of decoding
skills to be different for hearing and deaf children.

Although many linguists and psychologists in the US
currently accept the linguistic legitimacy of signed
languages, a rather heavy burden of proof has still been
placed on deaf researchers to demonstrate this. Using more
recent linguistic and psychological methodology, the
researchers in this volume show us again that sign
languages develop in children along the same timeline as
spoken languages. They also illustrate how depriving deaf
children of this linguistic input can threaten their future
in ways hard to imagine for hearing people.

A couple elements lack representation in this volume. The
L1 researchers in the first part of the book rely a great
deal on longitudinal and production data. But as Morford
and Mayberry (Ch. 7) point out, deaf researchers must begin
carrying out comprehension studies of ASL to complement the
methodological advances for spoken languages. Otherwise, it
will be increasingly difficult to explain how signed
language development mirrors that of spoken language. The
L2 reading section of the book lacks representation from
deaf research into the nature of decoding, a principal
research focus into how hearing children learn to read.
Without this, it will only become more difficult to
demonstrate how deaf reading development is similar to and
different from that of the hearing.

These minor shortages notwithstanding, I highly recommend
this methodologically rigorous volume, both as a primary
reference into how human language is essentially blind to
modality, and as a wake-up call to the cognitive and
educational challenges faced by a population we rarely hear
much about.

Coerts, J. A., and Mills, A. E. (1994). Early sign
combinations of deaf children in Sign Language of the
Netherlands. In I. Ahlgren, B. Bergman, & M. Brennan
(Eds.), Perspectives on sign language structure. Papers
from the Fifth International Symposium on sign Language
Research (Vol. 2, pp. 319-331). Durham, NC: The
International Sign Linguistics Association/The Deaf Studies
Research Unit, University of Durham.

Cummins, J., & Swain, M. (1986). Bilingualism in education:
Aspects of theory, research and practice. New York:

Hoover, W. A., & Gough, P. B. (1990). The simple view of
reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal,
2, 127-160.


Patrick Bolger is a Ph.D student in Second Language
Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona. His
principal research interest is in how orthographic-
linguistic associations learned in an L1 affect the
acquisition of an L2.
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