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Horton: Becoming a Participant

February 22 @ 9:00 am - 10:30 am

Becoming a participant: The significance of research on sign language acquisition and socialization

Laura Horton, University of Chicago


We have begun to understand the range of circumstances in which children develop language by documenting socializing practices in diverse communities with varied participant frameworks. The term participant frameworks describes the number of people taking part in a conversation and their status as participants or observers. Although researchers have documented considerable diversity in the early linguistic and social environment of hearing children, the process of spoken language acquisition is typically characterized by unhindered access to the linguistic input in the environment; hearing children cannot help but take in the language(s) being spoken around them. For deaf children, access to linguistic input is not guaranteed. In addition to sensorial limitations on their access to spoken language, deaf children’s sign language development diverges from that of hearing children in two primary ways: (1) characteristics of the sign language model and (2) social contexts of acquisition. Each of these factors shapes and is shaped by the participant frameworks in which deaf children are embedded in their daily social lives. In this presentation, I start by asking how we can quantify the effects of social interaction in different participant frameworks. I develop a measure of lexical overlap in local sign languages used in an Indigenous community in Guatemala to explore the consequences of frequent and infrequent interactions. I then present a detailed analysis from a comparative study of sign language socialization in three communities across the region where children are sometimes positioned as participants and sometimes as observers of adults’ signing. Lastly, I turn to a common setting for sign language acquisition in the United States – early elementary classes taught in American Sign Language (ASL). In this participant framework, children are positioned as participants in the context of the classroom with other students, rather than at home with family. In each of the studies I discuss, I stress the importance of uniting qualitative and quantitative methods to understand the lived experiences of deaf children acquiring sign languages. This work expands our knowledge about the language development process for all children, which is incomplete when we overlook deaf children and sign languages.

Online – contact rashields@wisc.edu for link.


February 22
9:00 am - 10:30 am
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