February 1, 2003
Language Acquisition of Individuals who are Deaf: Native, Early, and
Late Learner Differences
Language acquisition for Deaf students has been of great
debate in the field of Education. The thought of language as the
cognitive process involved in socialization of individuals is exemplified
on multiple occasions, including at the Nicaragua School for the Deaf (Muma,
2001). This school was established in the late 1970s and focused on the
oral approach in the education of Deaf students. Students were taught to
read the Spanish language on the lips as well as read and write Spanish (Helmuth,
Deaf children who were sent to the Nicaragua school were
never taught any sign language since most children were born to hearing
parents. In the classroom, no signs were permitted of any kind. However,
outside of class children began using their own form of communication.
The playground, bus, and hallways were filled with gestures that gave
birth to Nicaraguan Sign Language. Teachers observed this phenomenon, and
referred to this communication system as “mime” (Helmuth, 2001).
Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) was discovered in the
1980s. From its birth, linguists were able to watch this language
transform into the present day language. The Deaf students at the school
became a Deaf community that created vocabulary and grammar for their
native language (Helmuth, 2001).
NSL was developed through a process of a pidgin language
evolving into a creole language. Signers use location to represent the
relationship between objects or ideas. Those students who entered the
Nicaragua School for the Deaf after 1983 use more spatial representation
than those individuals who entered before. It is apparent that this
grammatical construct is relatively new to this language and is in greater
use by the younger students (Helmuth, 2001).
Native signers do not realize the complex language that is
in use. Early signers only recognize the handshape and movement of each
sign. The multiple layers and constructs that lie beneath each sign are
not apparent in these early language acquisition stages. During age five
to age ten, the individual begins building the phonemic and morphemic
units that are part of the language (Galvan, 1999).
The cognitive-social model of language has four levels of
development. First, words and vocabulary are converted into semantic
language use. Then the content of the language is balanced between
explicit and implicit ideas. Explicit ideas are the thought behind the
message and implicit ideas are the individual’s knowledge of the world.
Next, grammatical and pragmatic adjustments occur during language usage.
Finally, the individual must be able to use the language for
metalinguistic purposes. That is, the individual must be able to use the
language to reflect upon the language. When these four stages occur, the
learning of a language has commenced (Muma, 2001).
There are differences that exist between those individuals
who learn sign language as early learners, young in life, and those who
learn as late learners. This supports the critical period hypothesis, the
idea that if language has not occurred by a certain age, language will
never occur. Native signers are able to use morphological aspect of sign
language in more appropriate situations than those who learn later in life
(Galvan, 1999). Morphological signs are those that are the smallest
meaningful units of language. It is the formation of words from other
meaningful units (Valli, 2000).
Early signers use signs as whole units. More morphological
inflections are used by early learners than late language learners use.
Late sign language learners lack the appropriate inflections during
conversation. A great difference exists between native language learners,
those who have been exposed to language since birth, and early language
learners. This difference is obvious by the age of nine (Galvan, 1999).
When young Deaf children are exposed to sign language, more spatial
grammar is used. Young signers are altering the grammar and syntax of
their native language and are establishing the norms for their language
use (Helmuth, 2001).
A new approach to Deaf Education in the United States uses
both American Sign Language (ASL) and English in equal proportions and is
referred to as the bilingual approach (Galvan, 1999). This approach
allows parents and teachers to expand and vary the social and emotional
worlds of Deaf children. Early exposure to ASL gives the Deaf individual
communication with their environment. By using mime or role-play to
reinforce the English read in books, students gain a greater understanding
of the grammar and use of English. Adjusting the routines and daily
activities of students, can expand the vocabulary and experiences of all.
Without this expansion of these elementary concepts, one cannot expect a
child to understand the complex world that exists (Muma, 2001).
Galvan, D. (1999). Differences in the
use of American sign language morphology by deaf children: Implication of
parents and teachers. American Annals of the Deaf, 320-324.
Helmuth, L. (2001). From the mouths
(and hands) of babes. Science,
Muma, J., & Teller, H.
(2001). Developments in cognitive socialization: Implications for
deaf education. American Annals of the Deaf, 31-38.
Valli, C., & Lucas, C. (2000).
Linguistics of American Sign Language: An Introduction. Washington,
D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
Cite this article?
McCardle, J. (2003) Language acquisition for the deaf: native,
early, and late learner differences, Lifeprint Journal, Lifeprint.com,