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Language in our hand: The role of modality in shaping spatial language development in deaf and hearing children

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Spatial language development in signing deaf children

Deaf children can learn spatial language just as well as their hearing counterparts, if not better. The latest research on the topic unveils some pleasantly surprising findings that contradict prevailing opinion.


Spatial information hits our brain every minute, whether we run to our car, answer the telephone or stand beside a moving vehicle. While our spoken language helps us explain the spatial relationships we have with objects around us, communicating spatial perceptions changes when it comes to sign language. In sign language, communicating about such relations is less abstract and more iconic than in spoken languages. This has prompted researchers to investigate language acquisition, considering whether it follows a universal trajectory based on an innate design for language and on a universal pattern of conceptual development. To answer this question, the LANGUAGE IN OUR HAND (Language in our hand: The role of modality in shaping spatial language development in deaf and hearing children) project cross-compared spoken language acquisition with sign language, choosing Turkish sign language as a case model. It studied deaf and non-deaf children of the same age to see if sign language hinders, accelerates or has no effect on development, factoring in gesticulations as well. The study comprised both static and dynamic action statements such as the book is on the table, the cat jumps in the box, and the boy hides the ball under the bed. Based on test data involving different age groups, the team deduced that in terms of processing locational relations (i.e. in, on, under) deaf children followed a similar pattern as hearing children. It also found that regarding viewpoint relationships (i.e. left-right) deaf children faired even better than speaking children. In addition, children using sign language proved to be as capable as adults in producing motion event expressions (e.g. the girl walked to the car). Several other project findings validate that spatial learning in deaf children is not hampered (unlike in previous research), and even can be advantaged compared to speaking children in some respects, challenging older research and perceptions in the field. These results are set to enrich the study of sign language, as well as the development of cognition and spatial language. The findings have the potential to guide learning of spatial language in both signing and speaking children and ultimately encourage the inclusion of deaf persons into society through teaching them sign language as well as spoken language (i.e. through bimodal bilingual education), with implications that could support development for children around the globe.


Spatial language, deaf children, language acquisition, sign language, hearing children

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