Developmental, Cross-Cultural, and Familial Influences on Deaf Children’s Gesture Communication Systems (Home Signs)
Marie Coppola

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Chicago

Primary Discipline

Human Development
Picture a child living in a typical family who has never encountered a language. Would such a child be able to invent a language on her own Some deaf children are normally socialized and normally developing but lack access to any conventional linguistic input. Profound hearing loss prevents them from acquiring a spoken language naturally. Because their parents have chosen oral education, they are not exposed to a sign language. These deaf children nonetheless gesture with family and friends, creating gestural communication systems called “home sign.”Current evidence suggests that these home signs are simple, do not change over time, and show no cross-cultural differences. This study examines how home signs become more complex over time and how family interaction and the surrounding culture influence children’s internal learning tendencies. Comparing child and adult home signers will uncover the contribution of development to language creation. Culture may also play a role: Nicaraguan speakers display greater gestural richness than do American speakers. Further, Nicaraguan parents have lower expectations for their child’s assimilation into the hearing world. Consequently, Nicaraguan parents appear more willing and able to gesture with their deaf children, allowing us to observe the effects of having an uninhibited gesture communication partner on early home sign complexity. Beyond revealing an individual child’s language-making capacities, home sign addresses fundamental questions of language origin posed by Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). NSL emerged in the late 1970s as a large group of deaf people came together for the first time, each bringing their individual home sign system to the task of language creation. Thus, understanding home sign structure can also illuminate the processes of language genesis and conventionalization.Deaf children’s created gestures reflect the extremes of children’s language creation abilities. This work examines the cultural and family interaction patterns that influence how all children structure information in their environments. Through understanding the abilities that children bring into the classroom, we can enrich the critical input that teachers and other educators provide to children
About Marie Coppola

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