© Video used with permission of Justin Jackerson

*You may be interested to view and read about longitudinal documentation of language aquisition from birth to the present of a native ASL speaker at www.handspeak.com/blog/


Early or first language acquisition, a natural exposure to their native languages among infants, includes phonology/cherology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and a large vocabulary bank. Unlike “learning” a language, acquisition occurs naturally and easily, where children know grammatical rules without needing to be taught. In order to experience full language acquisition, especially for deaf and hard of hearing children, each child needs to have access to seeing, using, and playing with the language.


The earliest stage of acquisition is phonology (how a word sounds) or cherology (how a sign looks, incorporating all handshape parameters, eye-hand coordination, space and movement, and facial expressions). To master the phonology or cherology of a native language, the child must learn its various features. After noticing these features and having the ability to produce them, an inventory is built in the child’s brain. When there is an expanded knowledge and acquired skills of the entire inventory, the child develops rules about what may or may not be combined.

Studies show that deaf babies develop manual babbling (mabbling) skills at the same rate and timing as hearing babies developing vocal babbling skills (Petitto & Marentette, 1991). The development of cherological or phonological skills begins when the infant detects and become fixated on a specific sign or speech, which typically occurs around four months of age. The child will go through a series of stages from simple to complex mabbling or babbling. By 12 to 14 months, the child expresses words (signs) in sequences that appear to be like sentences, but appear to still be still. However, this kind of growth is not meaningless, but rather linguistic, because the child’s preferred sign choice (most frequently, handshape, location, and movement preference) or spoken phonology are shown in their first words.


The development pattern of three parameters (handshapes, movements, and locations) is predictable and consistent. The signing parameter of location is known to be acquired earliest and has shown accurate productions in the earliest signs (Marentette & Mayberry, 2000).

Substitutions and simplifications for handshapes in the target language are naturally created as the infant develops a system of handshapes. For example, in ASL, there is a difference between the “5” handshape and the “B” handshape. The child may only be able to create the “5” handshape in the beginning, and often may substitute “B” with the closest handshape. This will happen frequently until the child can produce all of the handshapes. This depends on joint proximalization because sign language stimulates the body to activate joints from shoulder to elbow, and to the wrists and knuckles. Joints that are proximal (close to the torso, like shoulder and elbow) compared to distal location (far from the torso, like wrists and knuckles in the hands) affect motor control in infants. Infants tend to manipulate and control proximal joints before developing movement in distal joints. If they have difficulty signing words that use distal joints, those are replaced with proximal joints (Meier, Mauk, Cheek & Moreland, 2008).

Sympathy, or movement of both hands at the same time, is commonly seen in early signers. When signs are two-handed, requiring separate movements and use different hand configurations on each hand (dominant hand on static base hand), such as sign for COOKIE, this can be difficult for babies during their first year of life. As a result, it is assumed that babies will repeat sign movement as a way to improve accuracy in sign production (Clibbens & Harris, 1993, as cited in Chen Pichler, n.d.). 


As babies develop language skills physically, they are connecting signs or sounds into lexical or word meanings. Babies start inventing words that have consistent meaning and then they learn to select words that are connected to a single context (context-bound words), and then they finally use real words in sentences. Basically, the development of a child’s word bank occurs in four stages:

1. Segmentation: Notices breaks between words within a sentence

2. Identification: Identifies that utterance are words

3. Storage: Adds newly identified words to the word bank

4. Categorization: After words are connected to meanings, they are categorized into concepts


Joint attention is when the parent or the caregiver and the child focus on an object in shared attention and are engaged in dialogue about it. This kind of attention and dialogue contributes to the child’s development of language, cognitive, and social skills. For deaf children, eye gaze, pointing and gestures, shifting of attention between object and the speaker, and non-linguistic cues (waving and/or touching child, and showing object) take place. Typically, signers use Child-Directed Signing (CDS), or motherese. They apply sign modifications when addressing the children, which requires the signer to be fluent in the language (Pizer et al., 2008). Examples of modified signing include:

  • Displacement: Production moved from expected place into the child’s vision field
  • Repetition: Repetition of sign is increased  
  • Signing on the child’s body: First signing the word as a language model, and then repeating the sign on the child’s body
  • Molding: Moving the child’s hands to make the child produce the sign
  • Lengthening: Signs produced slowly or held in place
  • Enlargement: Area of movement is increased


By having full access to a natural, rich, and visual language, deaf and hard of hearing children enter kindergarten ready to learn. Various studies show that early sign language acquisition benefits them academically and socially. Furthermore, the common belief that ASL hinders or prevents spoken or written English development is not true (Snodden, 2008).

When a deaf or hard of hearing baby is raised in a spoken language environment as their only input for language, parents need to monitor the child’s ability to pick up silent sounds of speech (such as b, p, th, ch). If the child grows up performing poorly academically, and then is relocated to a Deaf school, the child will still struggle. It is because in later grades, teachers expect each student to have already acquired age-appropriate language skills. They will not be focusing on developing those skills. Therefore, without a strong base of ASL cherological awareness, the child will still continually lag behind their signing peers. 

Lenneberg’s Critical Period hypothesis theorizes that the window for acquisition opens widely at birth and then slowly narrows as the child reaches about 10 years of age or puberty. Furthermore, Morford & Mayberry (2000) proposed from their research that any person with weak phonology skills would struggle to understand concepts. They conducted a study of deaf children who had early exposure and late exposure (ages 10 and older) to sign language. Results showed that the late-exposed signers did not do well on comprehension. This brings up the importance of timing for internalizing a first language, which should occur immediately after the deaf or hard of hearing baby is born.

In sum, while ASL is a gestural, visual, spatial, and natural language, it requires activation of physical skills to develop. To master the cherology skills of a native language, a child must learn its various features naturally and as early as possible. This will lead the child to possess expanded knowledge and acquired linguistic skills, and to experience healthy language, cognitive, and social development.       


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Pizer, G., Shaw, K. M., & Meier, R. (2008). Joint Attention and Child-Directed Signing in American Sign Language. Supplement to Proceedings of the 32nd Boston University Conference on Language Development.

Snodden, K. (2008). American Sign Language and early intervention. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 64(4), 581-604.


    © Jaclyn Vincent 2015. All rights reserved.