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The Emergence of Language in Social Interaction

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ELISA (The Emergence of Language in Social Interaction)

Reporting period: 2021-08-01 to 2023-01-31

During sign language genesis, signers naturally come to integrate spontaneous gestures into their grammars. Researchers have been able to track this process in two famous cases: Nicaragua and Israel’s Negev desert. This project addresses a third case: Kata Kolok (KK) arose six generations ago due to high incidences of deafness in a Balinese village. ELISA determines what the earliest stages of this language looked like and what mechanism have shaped its emergence.

Thus far theories of sign language emergence have been based on comparisons of emergent signing varieties from geographically distinct areas and thus potentially very different gesture cultures. ELISA focuses on signing varieties within the context of Bali to enable direct comparison between the various stages of language emergence. Three potentially-interacting hypotheses are considered: gestural origins (the contribution of the spontaneous gestures used by speakers), time-depth (intergenerational transmission), and social interaction (community structure & quality of conversations).

This is achieved by
i) reconstructing the setting in which KK emerged by investigating the social interactions of deaf people within the wider region;

(ii) documenting the communicative structures of these homesigners as they interact with their hearing communication partners, and by comparing these systematically to generations III-V of KK;

(iii) growing sign languages in the lab by asking hearing Balinese participants to describe events using silent gesture under various experimental conditions to test each of the hypotheses.

Through this comparative approach, ELISA brings together the fields of sign language emergence and cultural evolution and is effectively able to chart the birth and development of a modern human language over the course of a century. Through the involvement on various deaf organizations and locally-trained deaf research assistants the project aims to increase awareness regarding language deprivation among rural deaf children, in addition to boosting the potential role of locally-emerged sign languages such as Kata Kolok.
Within the first project year, research permits have been arranged together with Undiksha University, Bali as a local partner. In addition, we have trained a team of five local research assistants, of whom four are community members, and two are deaf signers themselves. They have started surveying the areas surrounding the main village in which Kata Kolok emerged, while maintaining convid-safety protocols.
One of the main project outcomes will be the creation of the Balinese Homesign Corpus. This will constitute an unparalleled data set capturing sign language data of homesigners with varying social experiences from one particular gesture culture in a systematic way.