New sign language suggests children create language's fundamentals through learning

enghas said.

The researchers studied a trait central to all developed languages called "discreteness," meaning that information is packaged into separate elements that can be put together according to various rules. For example, no matter what the language, it consists of words, which combine to make sentences.

Expressions of motion are particularly useful for studying discreteness in spoken and signed languages. In developed languages we break up the idea of a continuous movement into separate words. For example, in the expression, "rolling down the hill," one word ("rolling") conveys the type of movement while another ("down") conveys the direction.

In contrast, a typical gesture describing "rolling down a hill" would be a single, unbroken movement of the hand, such as a circular motion along a downward path.

Senghas and her colleagues studied deaf individuals from each of the three age-groups that use NSL and hearing individuals who speak Spanish. They showed each participant a cartoon in which a cat swallows a bowling ball and then wobbles down a steep road. Then, they asked the participants to tell the story in their language.

The signing of the oldest group looked much like the gestures produced by the hearing group as they spoke, combining movement type and direction in a single hand motion.

The two younger groups, however, separated the movement type and direction into different signs, as is done in spoken language.

"So what they're doing looks very language-like and does not look gesture-like, even though they're taking gestures to make the language. And that tells me there's something really core about that drive," Senghas said.

Even without being taught, children automatically seek out rules of language such as discreteness to communicate, according to Senghas.

"Everything surrounding the children is telling them that manner and path belong together -- they happen together in the eve

Contact: Jessica Lawrence-Hurt
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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