Locative relationships in ASL

Locative relationships in ASL: The development of polycomponential predicates in deaf
Brenda Schick, Ann Marie Baer & Kim Brown Kurz
University of Colorado
Nancy Bridenbaugh
University of Hawaii
Debbie Golos
University of Colorado
Classifiers are complex morphological structures, perhaps more appropriately called
polycomponetial verbs, that occur in most if not all sign languages. Although they are an
essential component of adult language, we have an incomplete understanding about how
children acquire these morphologically complex forms. Previous research indicates that
these forms may have an extended developmental time period, most likely due to the
complex array of meanings and forms that constitute the classifier system, as well as the
subtle rules for combining components. Therefore, they are an excellent candidate when
looking for developmental benchmarks in sign language, particularly during the schoolage years when educational programs need to document language skills. Their
development occurs over an extended time period, children must learn to coordinate
layered, morphologically rich predicate structures, both within a single structure as well
as across multiple classifiers. Because of this, they provide a unique window onto
acquisition of signed languages. Most research on classifier acquisition in ASL has
focused on the selection of handshapes and the ability to represent different objects using
different hands, with some attention on how children coordinate information on two
hands. But we do not know much about how well children coordinate classifier
descriptions involving spatial relationships between a figure and ground that require
multiple predicates.
This investigation examines the patterns of lexical-syntactic proprieties in ASL
polycomponential signs (classifiers), focusing on descriptions of locative relationships
that require more than a single predicate. This study includes 91 deaf children, from age
3; 11 to 7;11 years of age, who were learning ASL as a first language and who attended
bilingual schools. Approximately half of the children had deaf parents and half had
hearing parents. Samples of classifier production were elicited from a picture task that
required children to describe locative relationships between two objects (figure and
ground). This means that most of the data required what is often termed entity classifiers,
in some type of locative relationship to each other. Using the same stimuli, data were
elicited from five native-signing deaf adults for comparison purposes.
The data were analyzed for the following components: handshape selection from a
semantic perspective, the locative relationship between ground and figure, and the
ordering of predicates within the description. In addition, the child’s ability to use
prosody, similar to what is often termed Topic Comment, to focus and introduce the
figure and ground was examined. Basically, the entire locative description was analyzed
in terms of introducing the figure and ground, as well as how the child combined the
specific predicates. Because of this, the resulting data shows the children’s skills in terms
of morphology, syntax, and prosody. Data were coded by individuals fluent in ASL,
using a coding system developed for the purposes of this study, intended to capture
patterns of production in terms of errors and correct structures.
The data show that there are developmental trends in classifier production evident across
age span. Results show that, as expected, deaf children with deaf parents have more
advanced skills in classifier production compared with their peers from hearing families.
However, many deaf children from hearing families demonstrated skills that were
developmentally appropriate, with some children comparable to native-signing children.
Within each group, there was a range of abilities. First, children were generally skilled at
selecting an appropriate handshape at an early age. However, there was more difficulty
in producing predicates that correctly combined these handshapes into a single structure,
and representing clearly the locative relationship between the figure and ground. In
addition, children with more advanced skills were able to introduce the figure and
ground, often using prosodic focusing, followed by a predicate that showed a locative
relationships. Younger children often did not produce grammatical focus. Younger
children also showed more difficulty in efficiently focusing on the locative relationship,
often producing elements that were not essential to the description. Older children often
produced a clear and concise series of polycompontial verbs. Finally, older children were
able to produce the locative description using adult-like ordering of elements. In
contrast, younger children showed difficulty in correctly ordering the entire classifier
In summary, deaf children are able to produce many elements of a polycomponential
predicate at a young age, but coordinating the numerous elements is more difficult. This
entails coordinating elements sequentially as well as combining numerous morphemes in
a single predicate. As children gain more skills, they are also able to use prosodic focus,
similar to Topic Comment, in order to specify the figure and ground prior to describing
the relationship between them.