BSL in its Social Context
Child Directed Language
Having considered the development of the child in the first year of life, we now have to look at the stage where language begins to develop. For hearing children, this is the stage of first words and gesture. For deaf children it is the stage of first signs and gesture. In fact, one major complication is that deaf and hearing children both gesture at this time and it is a major task to try to differentiate the two aspects. It can appear as if hearing children also sign but of course it is very unlikely that they will combine their gestures to create meaning. We are covering the pre-language stage. It is important because research shows that it is a vital stage for language to come later. Comparisons between deaf and hearing mothers is important.
In mother-child interaction, the mother can:
· direct (tell the child to do something) e.g. Put it here
· interpret (explain what the child has done) e.g. oh, you've dropped it
· ask questions e.g. whos a lovely monster? what can that be?
· report (make a statement e.g. We have one like that)
· name (e.g. colour naming
The hearing mothers asked many questions and answered some. The deaf mother asked fewer questions and concentrated on naming the toys. She did not use tag questions like isnt it? or havent you? Deaf mothers would not use tag questions like the hearing mother. The adult form of BSL tag question is not used with children.
The deaf mother moved the duck, but the hearing mother did less. Hearing mothers use near and far games by linking the distance of the toy from the baby with their tone of voice. The deaf mother moves the toy more - maybe to get the childs attention. The deaf mother kept repeating the name of the object, rather than commenting on it. The behaviour is different at 3, 6 and 9 months. The hearing mother talked more about the sound the toy makes. The deaf mother talked about colour. But both mothers talk about colours and sound. The implications of the study are important: we need to think about the way things are talked about for the child. Examples of this behaviour are on the Open University tape. The mother gets the childs attention. As the child gets older, the mother may not have to point because she can get the child to follow her eyes or head movement. Young children need pointing as well. Hearing mothers dont use only eyes and head for direction; they use pointing as well.
This is the special register that adults use to talk to small children. We already know from sociolinguistics that adults change the register of their signing when they sign to children. However, we don't sign in only one way to all children. There is a special register for signing to small children - often called Motherese. This is also called Baby-talk i.e. the mother does not sign like she would to adults, or older children.
The term Motherese is not used much formally now (because it excludes other caretakers, especially Fathers), and Caretaker language is considered more correct. However, Motherese carries on as a useful term that many people use informally.
Research shows Motherese occurs in all languages. It uses signs or words that only children use. In English, this includes words like doggie, choo-choo or bow-wow. Many English words have an element of repetition, and often have a final s added, e.g. jim-jams, bye-bye, din-dins, wee-wee, did-dums and night-night. We will see that there is also an element of repetition in Motherese in BSL. The intonation in the voice is different in speech. In BSL the facial expression and movement and location of the signs are different.
When we look at a video of a mother using Motherese in BSL, we can see that there are many different features of signs in baby-talk. Here are some of the major ones:
· signing on the baby's body (when the location should be on the signer)
· using the baby's hands to sign on the adult's or child's body
· placing the child on the lap and facing away from the mother
· signing on the object
· signing using the object
· signing bigger than normal
· signing repeated more often then normal
· sign lasts longer than normal
· signing special baby signs rather than adult signs
Motherese is used to try and solve some major problems that the child has compared to an adult. The baby does not understand the language very well, doesnt know much about the world, and isn't very skilled at reasoning. The child also may not be looking at the mother (as we saw in the last session when we considered eye contact).
In Motherese, for example, the mother repeats the sign TRACTOR far more often for the child than she would normally. In another example, BUS is made bigger, and with more repetitions. Also, AEROPLANE moves all over the place, for a long time. This is to get the childs attention. It gives the child a chance to copy the sign. When the child does sign, the mother then repeats it, but smaller, more like adult. The mother does not expect the child to sign like that. (This is important to tell hearing mothers because they will not know this).
Kantor studied 2 children, from 0;8, to 2;8. She found that as the children got older, they made more utterances and used more two-sign utterances. The mothers were sensitive to this, and mirrored the same pattern, so that too used more signs, and their utterances were longer. Young children also use a lot of pointing in their signing, and Kantor found that mothers also used a lot of pointing with their babies.
The mother does not sign in a way that is too difficult for the child to understand. When the child is very young and cannot produce signs, or only one or two signs, the Mother only produces one or two signs. As the child acquires more language, the Mothers signing becomes more complex, too. Kantor found in ASL that deaf mothers do not inflect their verbs, but use citation forms instead. If they do ever inflect the verb, it is only towards things or people that are present (so there is no use of an index to establish an index for someone or something that is not there). Instead of using complex grammar, they use different strategies, especially to avoid indexing or inflecting verbs.
They bring the object they want to talk about into the signing space (i.e. they show it to the child). This means they dont even need to point. One mother picked up the object, brought it into view, widened her eyes, covered her mouth and then pointed to the object. This was her way to get the childs attention, and keep it. Her aim here was to name objects.
Bringing the object into the signing space allows the Mother to point on or over the object, instead of pointing towards it. The mothers in Kantors study only pointed towards the object regularly when the children were 2;6 or over.
Instead of inflecting verbs, they also use pointing (e.g. instead of signing BROKEN where something is broken, they point to it, and then sign BROKEN in neutral space, or signing YOU SIT THERE, rather than YOU SIT-THERE). In Kantors study, the mother did not inflect verbs until the child was 2;6.
The verb modulations were made over objects, rather than in their absence. For example PULL-TOY was signed over the toy, and when a painting was finished, she signed FINISHED over the painting, so it was clear that the painting and the toy were the topics of conversation, without marking them linguistically. At one stage the experimenter was behind the camera, and the mother signed to the child SHE WATCH-YOU rather than SHE-WATCH-YOU.
The mothers also did not use possessive pronouns (e.g. MY, YOUR etc.) until the child was older (2;1). Until then, she just used pointing instead (e.g. BOOK YOU rather than BOOK YOURS). When her son was 2;1, she started using the possessive because the child was ready to understand the differences between the two ideas. Up until the study ended at 2;8, though, the child still didnt produce the possessive signs for himself.
We have described much of the input of the adults, but connected to this is the question: how does the child respond? The hearing child is expected to respond with actions, some gestures, and later words. The deaf child may respond with gesture which might never become a sign, or it might respond with a sign. This raises the whole question of signs and gestures that are not signs. This is a very interesting area of BSL acquisition and we will discuss it in the next session when we start to discuss the production by the children in more depth.
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