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Acquisition of a Sign Language as a Second Language

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By Deborah Chen Pichler and Helen Koulidobrova

Abstract:

Traditionally, studies of second language (L21) acquisition have focused on the acquisition of spoken L2 by hearing learners, or the acquisition of spoken or written languages by deaf learners. L2 acquisition of sign languages has only recently become a topic of research, largely in response to a recent, dramatic increase in students, both hearing and deaf, interested in learning sign languages (Welles, 2004). As a function of this increase, the demand in instructional and assessment materials reliant on empirical evidence has grown as well (Ashton, Cagle, Brown Kurz, Newell Peterson, & Zinza, 2014).

Researchers ask to what extent typical L2 patterns apply to hearing students who are learning an L2 in a new modality; we will refer to such students as M2 (second modality)-L2 learners. One might predict that language learning in a new modality poses unique challenges that are not observed in typical (unimodal) L2 acquisition.

At the same time, we now know that hearing non-signers make extensive use of gestures and emblems alongside their spoken language, so we might ask what role this gestural experience plays in M2-L2 acquisition of sign language, and whether it can be exploited to facilitate acquisition. Researchers are also interested in understanding how individuals with a signed L1 acquire a second signed language; such M1 (first modality)-L2 learners provide another opportunity to test the “typical” patterns of L2 acquisition that have been established almost exclusively on the basis of spoken second language acquisition by hearing learners.

This chapter summarizes the small but growing literature on L2 sign acquisition for both M1 and M2 learners, and explores some of the many intriguing research questions offered by L2 sign research.