From Gesture to Sign Language: Conventionalization of Classifier Constructions by Adult Hearing Learners of British Sign Language

Marshall, C. R. & Morgan, G. (2015). From Gesture to Sign Language: Conventionalization of Classifier Constructions by Adult Hearing Learners of British Sign Language. Topics in Cognitive Science, 7(1), pp. 61-80. doi: 10.1111/tops.12118

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Abstract

There has long been interest in why languages are shaped the way they are, and in the relationship between sign language and gesture. In sign languages, entity classifiers are handshapes that encode how objects move, how they are located relative to one another, and how multiple objects of the same type are distributed in space. Previous studies have shown that hearing adults who are asked to use only manual gestures to describe how objects move in space will use gestures that bear some similarities to classifiers. We investigated how accurately hearing adults, who had been learning British Sign Language (BSL) for 1–3 years, produce and comprehend classifiers in (static) locative and distributive constructions. In a production task, learners of BSL knew that they could use their hands to represent objects, but they had difficulty choosing the same, conventionalized, handshapes as native signers. They were, however, highly accurate at encoding location and orientation information. Learners therefore show the same pattern found in sign-naïve gesturers. In contrast, handshape, orientation, and location were comprehended with equal (high) accuracy, and testing a group of sign-naïve adults showed that they too were able to understand classifiers with higher than chance accuracy. We conclude that adult learners of BSL bring their visuo-spatial knowledge and gestural abilities to the tasks of understanding and producing constructions that contain entity classifiers. We speculate that investigating the time course of adult sign language acquisition might shed light on how gesture became (and, indeed, becomes) conventionalized during the genesis of sign languages.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Marshall, C. R. and Morgan, G. (2015), From Gesture to Sign Language: Conventionalization of Classifier Constructions by Adult Hearing Learners of British Sign Language. Topics in Cognitive Science, 7: 61–80., which has been published in final form at http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/tops.12118. This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Self-Archiving.
Uncontrolled Keywords: Gesture; Sign language; Visuo-spatial processing; Classifiers; Spatial expressions;L2 learners; Phonology; Morphology
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Divisions: School of Health Sciences > Department of Language & Communication Science
URI: http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/6413

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