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Award Abstract #1724718

RAPID: Language Emergence from Inception

Division Of Behavioral and Cognitive Sci
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Initial Amendment Date: February 28, 2017
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Latest Amendment Date: February 28, 2017
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Award Number: 1724718
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Award Instrument: Standard Grant
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Program Manager: Joan Maling
BCS Division Of Behavioral and Cognitive Sci
SBE Direct For Social, Behav & Economic Scie
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Start Date: March 1, 2017
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End Date: February 28, 2019 (Estimated)
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Awarded Amount to Date: $39,727.00
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Investigator(s): Rachel Mayberry rmayberry@ucsd.edu (Principal Investigator)
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Sponsor: University of California-San Diego
Office of Contract & Grant Admin
La Jolla, CA 92093-0621 (858)534-4896
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NSF Program(s): Science of Learning,
DS - Developmental Sciences
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Program Reference Code(s): 059Z, 1311, 1698, 7914, 9179, SMET
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Program Element Code(s): 004Y, 1311, 1698


Sign languages are known to emerge spontaneously when groups of deaf children, who have acquired no spoken or signed language, are brought together for the first time in educational settings. The emergence of new sign languages can provide insights into how human language evolves. To date, however, studies of the phenomenon are retrospective in nature beginning ten or more years after the deaf children were brought together. This means that we know little about how deaf children share their idiosyncratic gestures, known as 'homesign', to create a common sign language. In March 2016, 35 deaf children who currently communicate via homesign gestures were brought together for the first time in two all deaf classrooms in Iquitos, Peru. This project gathers data on the individual deaf children's gesture and their initial inter-personal communication using these gestures. The goal is to understand the very first stage of language emergence. The unique insight of this investigation is the gathering of data about the deaf children's gestures before they meet other deaf children and how their gestures change throughout their first year of interaction with one another. In reality, deaf children across the world frequently grow up without access to a shared language. The data gathered in the present study will provide the first documentation of how children's communicative interactions via gesture become codified into the initial symbols and symbolic utterances that form the basis of language. The study will also provide insights into how a low-tech and inexpensive means to facilitate sign language acquisition for isolated deaf children can be used to educate deaf children throughout Latin America and the developing world.

Researchers have long hypothesized that bringing together deaf children who have not had access to a conventional language in either speech or sign will result in the emergence of a new sign language from the deaf children's idiosyncratic gesture systems. One such well-known situation is the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language, NSL, which has been used to model language evolution (Senghas 2003; Senghas & Coppola 2001; Senghas et al 2004). Because research on NSL only began 10 years after deaf children of Managua were first brought together in a school, the available data and research on sign language emergence is purely retrospective in nature. The crucial, initial stages of sign language emergence have never before been observed or studied. Data essential to investigate the emergence of a new sign language in Iquitos, Peru will be gathered from individual children and groups of deaf children with respect to emerging lexical forms and utterance structure, or syntax. Spontaneous and elicited data have already been gathered from each child while communicating via gesture with his or her family prior to school enrollment. The individual child data will continue to be gathered on a yearly basis. At the group level, the deaf children's spontaneous communication with each other will be videotaped in the classrooms at regular intervals throughout their first year together. This data, at both the child and group level, will be gathered (1) prior to, (2) during, and (3) after one year's time of the children's initial contact. The data with will yield unique observations about when and how a sign language emerges from children's idiosyncratic gesture systems. Although research suggests that sign languages emerge quickly in school settings when deaf children are brought together for the first time, the contribution of each child's gesture system to the initial organization of the group's emerging sign language is currently unknown. With the opportunity to document language emergence from inception, the proposed study will fill this theoretical gap by mapping the relation of each child's pre-existing gestural system and ability onto his or her subsequent learning of others' gestures and signs.


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