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Spontaneous sign systems created by deaf children in two cultures


Deaf children whose access to usable conventional linguistic input, signed or spoken, is severely limited nevertheless use gesture to communicate1,2,3. These gestures resemble natural language in that they are structured at the level both of sentence4 and of word5. Although the inclination to use gesture may be traceable to the fact that the deaf children's hearing parents, like all speakers, gesture as they talk6, the children themselves are responsible for introducing language-like structure into their gestures7. We have explored the robustness of this phenomenon by observing deaf children of hearing parents in two cultures, an American and a Chinese culture, that differ in their child-rearing practices8,9,10,11,12 and in the way gesture is used in relation to speech13. The spontaneous sign systems developed in these cultures shared a number of structural similarities: patterned production and deletion of semantic elements in the surface structure of a sentence; patterned ordering of those elements within the sentence; and concatenation of propositions within a sentence. These striking similarities offer critical empirical input towards resolving the ongoing debate about the ‘innateness’ of language in human infants14,15,16.

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Figure 1: Probability that a gesture will be produced for transitive actors (TA), patients (P), and intransitive actors (IA) in a two-element gesture sentence.
Figure 2: Mean number of complex gesture sentences as a proportion of total gesture sentences in Chinese and American deaf children and their mothers.
Figure 3: Development of complex gesture sentences in American deaf children and their mothers (proportion of total gesture sentences).

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We thank L. Barsalou, J. Huttenlocher, B. Keysar, M. K. McClintock, P. Miller, D.McNeill and W. Wimsatt for comments; S. Duncan for help in collecting the Taiwanese data; and F. Bechter and M.-Y. Zheng for help in transcribing the videotapes. Supported by grants from the National Institute on Deafness and other Communciation Disorders and the NSF.

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Correspondence to Susan Goldin-Meadow.

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Goldin-Meadow, S., Mylander, C. Spontaneous sign systems created by deaf children in two cultures. Nature 391, 279–281 (1998).

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