People who are deaf create their own languages in a variety of circumstances, according to experts who will be discussing this phenomenon during the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting, taking place 12-16 February 2009 in Chicago, Illinois.
A single child with deafness, living in a family that uses spoken language, can invent simple gestures called "homesigns." There may be thousands of homesigners in a given society. But more conventional sign languages only arise when larger numbers of people come together, whether in schools or communities, and pass on signs from generation to generation. Speakers at the AAAS Meeting will discuss the results from ongoing studies of sign languages -- how they emerge, evolve and sometimes, like spoken languages, disappear.
Marie Coppola, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Illinois, will discuss her work with four Nicaraguan homesigners and how such individual gesture systems likely provided the raw materials for the language that emerged in the school for the deaf. Coppola will present her latest findings during a symposium on "Languages Without Ancestors," set for Sunday, 15 February 2009, 1:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. CST (Hyatt Regency Chicago, Crystal Ballroom A). A press briefing related to the symposium is set for 11:00 a.m. CST on the same day.
Coppola also is featured on a related AAAS podcast, being made available via EurekAlert!. "Deaf children develop gestures to communicate when they are in situation where they are not exposed to a conventional sign language," she reports. "As they get older, these gesture systems, which are often known as homesigns, become more complex."
The patterns of linguistic structure found in gesture systems of homesigners and in successive generations of signers give clues on how language evolves, AAAS speakers say, but researchers are still grappling with questions such as how many people it takes to create a language and when the earliest sign systems attained a complexity greater than homesigns.
AAAS speaker Mark Aronoff, professor of linguistics at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, N.Y., and Wendy Sandler, director of the Sign Language Research Laboratory at the University of Haifa, Israel, will trace the development of a sign language that arose in a family with four deaf children in an insular Bedouin village in Israel. The language, now in its third generation, is used by 150 deaf and many hearing people.
Another speaker, Ann Senghas, associate professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, New York, N.Y., will describe her work on a Nicaraguan sign language that emerged in the 1970s among formerly isolated students who came together at a school for the deaf in the city of Managua.
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