Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: November 2019

7 - Sign Language Acquisition


Phonological acquisition and the milestones associated with it have been an important testing ground for theoretical claims since the inception of generative phonology, and the theme of this chapter builds on those from previous chapters. We have described how a sign language phonological system is influenced by the visual modality and by iconicity, how it is processed and how it emerges. We now add data from sign language acquisition to this picture, asking what evidence there is for the units proposed so far in the phonological system of a child or infant.

Typical first-language (L1) phonological acquisition is a critical piece in any child’s development as she makes contact with the world, and as we will see, it is also an important stepping-stone for reading. We also address acquisition in several other circumstances where sign language is acquired, as it pertains to second-language (L2) learners, late learners of an L1, and bilingual development. These populations are unique in ways that will become clear as they are introduced throughout the chapter.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Mayberry, R. I., Lock, E., & Kazmi, H. (2002). Development: Linguistic ability and early language exposure. Nature, 417(6884), 38.
Meier, R. (2002). The acquisition of verb agreement: Pointing out arguments for the linguistic status of agreement in signed languages. In Morgan, G. & Woll, B. (eds.), Directions in Sign Language Acquisition (pp. 115–41). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Associates.
Mirus, G. R., Rathmann, C., & Meier, R.P. (2001). Proximalization and distalization of sign movement in adult learners. In Dively, V.L., Metzger, M., Taub, S., & Baer, A.M. (eds.), Signed Languages: Discoveries from International Research (pp. 103–19). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Morgan, G., Barrett-Jones, S. & Stoneham, H. (2007). The first signs of language: Phonological development in British sign language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 28, 322.
Petitto, L. A., Holowka, S., Sergio, L.E., Levy, B., & Ostry, D. J. (2004). Baby hands that move to the rhythm of language: Hearing babies acquiring sign languages babble silently on the hands. Cognition, 93, 4373.
Reilly, J., McIntire, M., & Ursula Bellugi, U. (1990). Faces: The relationship between language and affect. In Volterra, V. & Erting, C. (eds.), From Gesture to Language in Hearing and Deaf Children (pp. 128–41). New York: Springer.