The role of gesture in learning for signing children: Implications... theory Language for presentation: English

The role of gesture in learning for signing children: Implications for sign language
Language for presentation: English
In spoken languages, gesture and speech are divided by modality, but in sign languages,
the difference is less clear because gesture and sign are in the same modality. Classifiers,
in particular, are vexing: in various analyses, they are described as gestural, linguistic, or
both (Liddell, 2003; Supalla, 1982). We take an experimental approach to identifying
properties of classifiers by examining their use in learning tasks. In hearing children,
gesture-language mismatches have been shown to predict readiness to learn new concepts
(Goldin-Meadow, 2000). Mismatches occur when speakers provide different information
in gesture than in speech in the same explanation. If deaf children can reliably be shown
to produce gesture-sign mismatches that also predict learning, the results could be useful
for determining the properties of classifiers.
In a study of math equivalence learning, Goldin-Meadow et al. (2012) found gesture-sign
mismatches in explanations of deaf signing children. Deaf children ages 9-12 were asked
to solve problems of the type 2+3+4=__+4. One coder transcribed their signs, and a
different coder transcribed their use of deictic points and sweeping gestures proximal to
or touching the white board as students were explaining their answers. They found that
deaf children produced mismatches at the same rate as hearing children on the same task,
and that children who produced more mismatches on the pre-test were significantly more
likely to benefit from training and improve on a post-test. They conclude that gesturelanguage mismatches involve two modes of thought. However, most of the gestures
produced by children were deictic points and sweeps and do not address the status of
Using a task that involves use of classifiers, we asked young deaf children (n=33) ages 58 to answer questions about conservation of liquid, mass, number and length.
Conservation is achieved when children understand that material properties remain the
same even after transformation changes their perceptual qualities (Piaget, 1952). We
compared the characteristics of three groups of students: conservers (≥75% correct, n=5),
partial conservers (<75% & >25% correct, n=8), and non-conservers (≤25% correct,
n=20). We coded segments in the students’ responses as either lexical signs, descriptive
classifiers, or gestures. We then identified whether these segments were produced 1) in
the signing space and not proximal to the object, 2) proximal to the object without
touching, or 3) actually touching the object, referring to gradient attributes of the objects.
Although the rate of gesture among the three groups was approximately the same (~50%
of trials), conservers use more lexical signs compared to the other two groups.
Conservers were also more likely to use classifiers in a categorical manner than non- or
partial conservers, who used them in a gradient manner. The ability to abstract away from
overt physical appearance is key to acquiring conservation knowledge. Our findings
suggest that classifiers may be used flexibly either as categorical or gradient. Skillfully
using categorical or gradient modes may play a role in learning and problem-solving.