Hearing infants show preference for sign language over pantomime

NEW ORLEANS Six-month-old hearing infants exposed to American Sign Language (ASL) for the first time prefer it to pantomime, lending new evidence that humans show a broad preference for languages over "non-languages," according to a University of Washington researcher who will present her findings here Friday at the annual convention of the American Psychological Society.

"Infants seem to be set up to pay attention to language at birth and we've seen they have a remarkable sensitivity to spoken language. This work is important because it broadens this bias to include an unfamiliar language in a completely unique modality," said Ursula Hildebrandt, a UW doctoral student in psychology, who will outline her research in a poster session. "It suggests that there may be something in all languages, both spoken and signed, that is interesting to infants."

To test the reaction of infants to ASL and pantomime, Hildebrandt set up an experiment to check the visual preferences of 17 boys and 17 girls. All of the infants had normal hearing, were full-term at birth and had no previous exposure to sign language or pantomime. Each child was held by their mother or an experimenter in front of two television monitors.

One monitor showed stories told in ASL by an actress while the other simultaneously displayed the same actress performing pantomime stories. The sequences were matched for length and grouped into trials that lasted about 40 seconds. The infants' faces were videotaped to see where their eyes were directed. Each infant saw six trials, and the ASL stories and mime sequences were randomly switched between the monitors.

An example of an ASL story was: "I went to the grocery store and couldn't decide what to buy. I remembered my daughter liked chicken, so that's what I got." A typical pantomime sketch showed the actress pretending to reach into a cupboard to get a pan and an egg. Then she mimed cracking the egg into the pan and flipping the

Contact: Joel Schwarz
University of Washington

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