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Spatial Language and Spatial Cognition in ASL and Nicaraguan Signers.

Researcher: Amber Martin

"My primary work explores the relations between age of language acquisition and the interactions between language and cognitive systems. Currently, my work stems from my dissertation study that examined mental rotation in adult users of American Sign Language. In this study, I found that ASL signers were more accurate than non-signers in detecting differences between figures that rotated away from each other.

I am currently exploring these questions further with both ASL and Nicaraguan Sign Language users. My current studies examine when in development signers become more skilled at mental rotation, and whether the effect is specific to those particular types of rotations most often performed in the course of using the language. Finally, I am investigating whether children learning sign languages must develop sufficient mental rotation skills before acquiring the ability to understand spatial relations, or whether learning sign language can facilitate the development of non-linguistic mental rotation."

Wh-questions poster

Researchers: Ann Senghas, Jennie Pyers, Annemarie Koacab

Sign languages typically use facial expressions, called nonmanual markers, to convey grammatical information. Prior research has suggested that nonmanual grammatical markers in sign languages are derived from facial gestures used by speakers of the local spoken language (Janzen & Schaffer, 2002, McClave, 2001). This project investigated how and when nonmanual markers enter NSL and whether adults or children drive the systematization of facial gestures into nonmanual markers. The data showed that younger signers produce significantly more facial gestures when asking wh-questions such as what, when and where, than the older signers, but that the type of facial gestures used varies across the two groups. Though there is an increase in the use of facial gestures by the younger signers, the variability in the type of facial gestures produced suggests that systematization of this particular convention is still underway.

Referential Shift

Researchers: Ann Senghas, Jennie Pyers, Annemarie Koacab

This project investigated the emergence of referential shift marking in NSL. Different languages utilize different grammatical devices to highlight multiple perspectives within a narrative. In sign languages, signers can use referential shift to both report a characterÕs speech and actions using body shifts in space, which depend on consistently marking the spatial relationship between characters, namely their locations in space. My research found that older signers, who used inconsistent spatial language on previous tasks, employ referential shift devices that do not rely on space. In contrast, the younger signers use devices that utilize consistent spatial language in addition to the devices the older signers use.

This finding indicates that the ability to communicate who does what to whom is imperative, but in sign languages, spatial skills are requisite for the use of devices that communicate referential information, due to the spatial nature of sign languages. It is the younger signers, not older signers, who utilize the body shift as a device to convey spatial relationships in signed narratives. This finding provides another example of the unique phenomenon which occurs in NSL, where the younger signers introduce complexities into the language, quite opposite of what is seen in most linguistic communities where older members typically model more complex language (Senghas & Coppola, 2001, R. Senghas, A. Senghas & Pyers, 2004).

Distilization and Proximilization

Researchers: Ann Senghas, Annemarie Koacab

This project is part of a larger study concerning a cross-linguistic comparison of NSL with other languages. Nicaraguan Sign Language has had some contact with different sign languages, and these interactions may have influenced its development (Polich, 2005). This project is investigating how much influence these other languages have had on NSL and how much NSL has developed according to the influence of other factors, such as motor development.

Many sound patterns in spoken language are constrained by human articulators. Early babbling begins with sounds produced using articulators at the front of the mouth (ba, pa) and progresses to the back (ga, ka). In some ways, this parallels development in nonlinguistic domains, For instance, when children begin to walk, the more proximal joints are mastered first, as can be seen when children walk using their hips. As children progress in motor development, they progressively add the more distal joints, the knee and then the ankle, until finally they resemble adult walking. Like motor development, there is evidence of distalization in language development. Meier (2008) showed that deaf children acquiring American Sign Language (ASL) initially use proximal movement in their signs then gradually acquire more distal movements as they become more proficient.

This project examines whether the early stages of NSL resemble early child language (in being more proximal), even as produced by motorically mature adults. I will compare NSL signs produced by older and younger signers to those of mature sign languages, including ASL, British Sign Language and LSE, the sign language used in Spain. Additionally, this project will examine the effect of contact languages, including whether certain signs are more likely to be adopted or modified based on this motoric bias.


Recent Publications (2000 - present)

Pyers, J. E., A. Shusterman, A. Senghas, E. Spelke, and K. Emmorey (2010). Spatial language supports spatial cognition: Evidence from learners of an emerging sign language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Senghas, A., and M. Coppola (2010). Getting to the point: How a simple gesture became a linguistic element in Nicaraguan signing. In D.J. Napoli and G. Mathur (Eds.), Deaf Around the World. Oxford University Press.

Coppola, M., and A. Senghas (2010). Deixis in an emerging sign language. In D. Brentari (Ed.), Sign Languages: A Cambridge Language Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (543-569).

Senghas, A., A. …zyŸrek, and S. Goldin-Meadow (2010). The evolution of segmentation and sequencing: Evidence from homesign and Nicaraguan Sign Language. In Evolang8: The Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on the Evolution of Language.

Senghas, A. (2010). Reinventing the word. In B. Malt and P. Wolff (Eds.), Words and the Mind: How Words Capture Human Experience. Oxford University Press (16-28).

Pyers, J. and A. Senghas (2009). Language promotes false-belief understanding: Evidence from a new sign language. Psychological Science, 20:7, 805-812.

Pyers, J. E., and A. Senghas (2007). Reported action in Nicaraguan and American Sign Languages: Emerging versus established systems. In P. Perniss, R. Pfau, and M. Steinbach, (Eds.), Visible variation: Comparative studies on sign language structure. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Senghas, A., D. Roman, and S. Mavillapalli (2006). Simplemente Unico: Lo que la Comunidad Sorda de Nicaragua le Puede Ense–ar al Mundo [Simply Unique: What the Nicaraguan Deaf Community Can Teach the World]. London/Managua: Leonard Cheshire International.

Senghas, A. (2006). ĄDe donde surgio el Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua? [Where did Nicaraguan Sign Language come from?] In A. Senghas, D. Roman, and S. Mavillapalli (Eds.), Simplemente Unico: Lo que la Comunidad Sorda de Nicaragua le Puede Ensenar al Mundo. London/Managua: Leonard Cheshire International.

Senghas, A. (2005). Language emergence: Clues from a new Bedouin sign language. Current Biology, 15:12, 463-465.

Senghas, R. J., A. Senghas, and J. E. Pyers (2005). The emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language: Questions of development, acquisition, and evolution. In J. Langer, C. Milbrath, & S. T. Parker (Eds.), Biology and Knowledge revisited: From neurogenesis to psychogenesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Senghas, A., A. …zyŸrek, and S. Kita (2005). Language emergence in vitro or in vivo? Response to comment on ŅChildren creating core properties of language: evidence from an emerging sign language in NicaraguaÓ Science, 309: 5731, 56.

Senghas, A., S. Kita, and A. …zyŸrek (2004). Children creating core properties of language: evidence from an emerging sign language in Nicaragua. Science, 305: 5691, 1779-1782.

Senghas, A. (2003). Intergenerational influence and ontogenetic development in the emergence of spatial grammar in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Cognitive Development, 18, 511-531.

Senghas, A., A. …zyŸrek, and S. Kita (2002). Encoding motion events in an emerging sign language: From Nicaraguan gestures to Nicaraguan signs. In A. Baker, B. van den Bogaerde & O. Crasborn (Eds.) Cross-linguistic perspectives in sign language research. Selected papers from TISLR 2000. Hamburg: Signum Press.

Saffran, J. R., A. Senghas, and J. C. Trueswell (2001). The acquisition of language by children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 98: 23, 12874-12875.

Senghas, A., and M. Coppola (2001). Children creating language: How Nicaraguan Sign Language acquired a spatial grammar. Psychological Science, 12, 4: 323-328.