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Home Sign and the resilience of language

Deaf children of hearing non-signing parents

n order to communicate early on, they often develop their own system of communication, often known as "home sign"

Studied by Goldin-Meadow et. al

These spontaneously arising unlearned languages have a form similar to other natural languages

Individual gestures correspond to words

Gestures combined with consistent word order

Noun-like gestures have a particular consistent form and verb-like gestures have a different consistent form

Different than spoken language and formalized sign language - no morphology or "complex syntax" (i.e. sentences with more than one verb)

Humans have capacity for language ‣ and will use something other than verbal - it will come out in invented, non-verbal ways if they are not exposed to language in a standardized form

But needs a community to share the language and develop it


Nicaraguan sign language

Formation of new language by kids brought together

Has syntactical properties of other conventional languages

One feature - spatial modulation (moving the location around to indicate that a different person is performing the action)

Looked at the age of exposure and how long the language had been around

In people who learned the language earlier, but at a later time in the development of the language (when these modulations had developed), the feature is used more often

If exposed after age 10, very little usage even if they were in the later group - critical period?


Critical period hypothesis

A critical period is a window of time in development in which a given skill must be acquired

Innate, biological preparedness in the brain

(Example in nature - imprinting in birds - chicks will follow the first bird that they see; this can only happen in the first few hours of life)

This closes after a period of time

Adults are constrained by what we've already been exposed to


Critical Period and the sounds of a language


Recorded the English speech of 60 Italian immigrants

Rated on no foreign accent to heavily accented

The age the immigrants arrived in the US was a very good predictor of how heavily accented they were judged to be

Total time living there was not predictive of accent

Large individual differences between people


Critical Period and grammar

Johnson and Newport

‣ Asked adult Chinese and Korean immigrants to distinguish grammatical from ungrammatical sentences

If they arrived between 3 & 7, they performed at native speaker level

Between 8 & 15, did less well

Those who were 17 and over were indistinguishable from those who arrived at age 30

Argued that critical period was closed, so your ability to learn the grammar is not affected by exposure and will not get better

Birdsong and Molis replicated the study, with the same sentences, with Spanish-speaking immigrants

Saw a different pattern

Between 2 & 17, much shallower decrease

After 17, it doesn't stop - there is no critical period, just not as good based on time spent in the country (continuous process)


Critical Period and general language learning

Hakuta et. al

Used census data collected from 2 million ‣ immigrants to the US who had been living here for at least ten years

They reported how competent they thought they were at English and what educational level they'd achieved

Proficiency goes down based on when they immigrated

No leveling out - general decrease with age (for both Chinese and Spanish speakers)

Self-report might be problematic


The dominant language switch hypothesis

Younger children are more successful in learning a second language because they switch to it as a dominant language

Chinese immigrants who arrived at a younger age performed better on English grammar tests but also performed worse on a Chinese grammar test


The "less is more" hypothesis

The adult's better memory disadvantages them in language learning

Adults learn language by memorizing large chunks of speech

Children cannot remember chunks as well and so have to figure out the grammar of the language more quickly


Acquisition of ASL as a native language

First signs

As early as 8.5 months vs. 12 months for first spoken word


Motor development?
Larger size of manual articulation?
Ability to see and manipulate articulators?
No guessing at how that sign is made, as with the tongue

First two word combination - 1.5 years

50 word vocabulary - 1.5 yrs

Use of signing space for indicating the subject and object - 3yrs

Hand shape that represents a written letter of a spoken language
First attempt at 2yrs
4 yrs - more reliable sequences that match spelling of words


Modularity of cognition

Specific, separable, special domains/areas of the brain

Spatial reasoning

Motor skills




Commonly theorized in language development (language is special to humans, and so it must be a special skill)


Non-modularity of cognition

These behaviors rely on the same underlying skills

Language involves the use of motor skills

Similarity to hula-hooping/motor skills

Plan an action, carry it out, pay attention to feedback & what is going on around you, sequences of actions - various steps with an important sequence (cannot be done in random order) Analogy, cognitive control, pattern recognition, structure building

Use skills for a variety of tasks


If language relies on exactly the same skills as other domains, what would you
expect about developmental disorders?

A child who cannot speak would have problems in other areas as well

Shouldn't be deficient only in language


Down Syndrome

Chromosomal abnormality found in 1 out of 800 newborns
Account for 1/3 of the intellectually disabled population
Adults typically have IQ below 70
Often used as comparison group, because it is so widespread

Language development:
Very few children achieve typical adult linguistic abilities
Takes 12 years to get to 30 month old
Canonical babbling delayed by 2 months
First word at 2 years

Mental development in other areas seems to be quicker
A 6 year old typically has the mental age of a 3 year old, but their
productive speech is generally far more delayed

Language skills much more delayed than other mental development - case for modularity


Williams Syndrome

1 in 25,000 people
Intellectual disablement is about equivalent to Down's syndrome

Language development starts later, but advances far beyond development of other mental abilities, such as numerical and spatial reasoning

Adult-like vocabulary where it's unusual to use those words, create their own words

Give impression of engaging in a conventional way

Only shallow understanding of the words they use

Language appears to be very different, much more advanced than other cognitive skills - case for modularity



1-2 per1000 births

Seems to have a genetic basis, although the exact source is not yet clear

Environmental factors (parenting style) seem to be predictive of its appearance and severity

Children typically have deficit in social cognitive ability

Lower functioning:

Approximately 80% of autistic individuals score in intellectually disabled range on nonverbal test of intelligence

Often produce no speech

Speech that is produced is often a simple repetition of what has been said

Higher functioning:

Less severe intellectual development

Vocabulary develops slowly but takes similar course of development

Seem to acquire same basic meanings

Grammar develops slowly but takes similar course of development

Fewer questions

Pragmatic development is impaired

Do not produce early pointing gestures

Do not initiate conversation

Do not follow gaze

Have problems with indirect requests


Justified false belief with Down Syndrome and Autism

Baron-Cohen et. al

Gave Sally-Anne task to 27 normally developing kids at 4.5 years
14 children with Down syndrome at 11 years
20 children with Autism at 12 years

The correct response was given by

23/27 normal 4.5 year olds
12/14 Down syndrome at 11 years
4/20 Autism at 12 years

Hard to know whether they even understood the task

Cognitive control task (inhibit their knowledge that the marble is in the box)

Language and social cognition appear to be separate

Down have theory of mind but not the language
Autism have language but no theory of mind

Supports modular perspective


Autistic/Down Syndrome children and personal pronoun errors

Similar percentages of usage of self-pronouns (80%) vs others

Autistic children have reversal errors 13% of the time

Autistic kids might not be able to take someone else's perspective

Or is it just that they cannot inhibit their own point of view?


Autism and Lack of monitoring other people's attentional state (what they are looking at,
what they know)

Child associated the "Peter Peter pumpkin eater" with a saucepan present when his mom first told him the nursery rhyme - "Peter eater"
Toy truck mislabeled a sausage

Eye gaze and social cognition
The ability to follow others' gaze in crucial to interacting with and
understanding them
Humans are evolved for this - large whites in our eyes makes it easy to
figure out where we are looking


Experimenter gave the child a novel told and kept a novel toy for
Labelled one of the toys in one of two ways

Follow-in labeling
Waited until the child looked at the child's toy and then the
experimenter looked at the child's toy and named it

Discrepant labeling
Waited until the child looked at the child's toy and then the
experimenter looked at the experimenter's toy and named it

Tested - where's the "toma"

14-15 and 16-17mo olds got the second case wrong
18-19 months labelled correctly

17 children with autism, 9 years old
5/17 right in second case

17 children without autism, with mental handicap and equivalent
comprehension and expressive language abilities
12/17 right in second case

Autistic children struggle with social cognitive abilities and ability to
take perspective/theory of mind

Makes it difficult to learn language


Specific Language Impairment

A disorder in which children show atypical language development, but typical development in all other areas

Diagnosed when a child's language skills are far slow expected for their age,but they are normal in hearing, non-verbal intelligence, social skills, etc.

Typically, they are weakest in grammar. Speech and language development
might be slightly delayed, but most striking is their grammar

Simple, non-complex sentences, verbs not conjugated correctly

Suggests that language, and pieces of language, are really separate

Are they acquiring language in the same way but over a longer period, or is
their language qualitatively different?

Is it really language specific? Planning, reasoning, symbol processing,
temporal sound processing does seem to be deficient - IQ and other
standard tests are insufficient

So not quite as significant/separate