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Sign Language

Sign languages are the principal means of communication among members of deaf communities, with most countries having their own distinct sign language. In the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) is the language typically used by persons who have grown up deaf. Sign languages have gained considerable attention outside of deaf communities through the use of signs to foster communication in minimally verbal hearing persons (e.g., children with autism) and with nonhuman primates.

For centuries, sign languages were viewed as primarily pantomimic—not true languages at all. This belief helped support the oral approach to deaf education, a strategy that eschewed signing and focused on speech. Oralists advised parents of deaf children to shun all forms of manual communication and to promote spoken language acquisition through speech training, hearing amplification, speech reading, and writing. Sadly, many young people failed to attain sufficient speech mastery through this approach. As a result, many schools for deaf students today embrace a total communication approach. In this approach, all avenues of communication, including signing, are used to foster deaf students' language skills.

The pioneering research of William Stokoe (1919-2000) did much to alter the view that sign languages were not true languages. Stokoe identified three aspects of sign formation that distinguish one ASL sign from another: the place where the sign is made, the configuration and orientation of the hands, and the hand and arm movement forming the sign. These sign formational aspects function in a manner similar to that of phonemes in spoken languages. Subsequent studies demonstrated that ASL not only has an extensive lexicon but it also operates as a rule-governed, grammatical system. Most linguists now recognize ASL and other sign languages used in deaf communities as full and genuine languages.



Bonvillian, John D. "Sign Language Development." In Martyn Barrett ed., The Development of Language. East Sussex, Eng.: Psychology Press, 1999.

Klima, Edward S., and Ursula Bellugi. The Signs of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Wilbur, Ronnie B. American Sign Language: Linguistic and Applied Dimensions, 2nd edition. Boston: College-Hill Press, 1987.

John D. Bonvillian

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Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 7