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The onset and mastery of spatial language in children acquiring British Sign Language

Morgan, G., Herman, R., Barriere, I. & Woll, B. (2008). The onset and mastery of spatial language in children acquiring British Sign Language. Cognitive Development, 23(1), pp. 1-19. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2007.09.003


In the course of language development children must solve arbitrary form-to-meaning mappings, in which semantic components are encoded onto linguistic labels. Because sign languages describe motion and location of entities through iconic movements and placement of the hands in space, child signers may find spatial semantics-to-language mapping easier to learn than child speakers. This hypothesis was tested in two studies: a longitudinal analysis of a native signing child's use of British Sign Language to describe motion and location events between the ages 1–10 and 3–0, and performance of 18 native signing children between the ages of 3–0 and 4–11 on a motion and location sentence comprehension task. The results from both studies argue against a developmental advantage for sign language learners for the acquisition of motion and location forms. Early forms point towards gesture and embodied actions followed by protracted mastery of the use of signs in representational space. The understanding of relative spatial relations continues to be difficult, despite the iconicity of these forms in the language, beyond 5 years of age.

Publication Type: Article
Publisher Keywords: Social Sciences, Psychology, Developmental, Psychology, Experimental, Psychology, PSYCHOLOGY, DEVELOPMENTAL, PSYCHOLOGY, EXPERIMENTAL, language development, sign language, gesture, classifiers, EXPRESS MOTION EVENTS, ACQUISITION, ENGLISH, MORPHOLOGY, GESTURE, SYSTEMS
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Language & Communication Science
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