Stephanie's Current Dissertation

Stephanie Berk stephanie.berk at UCONN.EDU
Sun Jul 13 21:17:57 UTC 2003

Thank you Valerie for your welcome and your discussion of my thesis.

    The situation you write of, namely Deaf adults who use ASL as
adults, but were not exposed to it until later in childhood or
adulthood- was very common in years past.  There is much research that
has been and continues to be done with the participation of Deaf adults
in this group.  And as your co-worker said, he is a native speaker/user
of no language, but a very capable user of ASL and has some knowledge of
English.  And indeed when Deaf native signers are matched with Deaf
later-learner signers there are still long-term differences that can be
seen.  Thankfully these differences are obviously not communicatively
incapacitating. Further, most children now receive intervention early,
before age 2 1/2 years.
    The two children I have been filming are in a now (thankfully)
unusual situation.  These two unrelated children were not exposed to any
language before the age of 5 1/2 years. The little girl (MEI) was
misdiagnosed as being low-functioning mentally retarded, when in fact
she is just deaf.  She scores within the normal to slightly above normal
ranges  on the cognitive and IQ tests administered- she just can't hear.
 The doctors and teachers at her head-start program had long-term goals
for her of 1) being able to color within the lines, 2) count to 10, and
3) write her name.  Her parents, while  very loving, did not try to
communicate with her much, because they were told there was no point to
it.  MEI lives in a very rural part of the U.S. and has no neighbors
close by.  As a result, no one really tried to communicate with her in
any language.  She played primarily by herself.  Finally at the age of 5
1/2 years, her grandmother realized that MEI might be deaf.  Indeed it
was the case, and MEI started attending a residential school for the
Deaf when she was 6 years old.  Hence MEI went from no/minimal language
exposure to full immersion in ASL.  I started filming 6 months after MEI
started at the school and filmed 2 times per week for 3+ years.
    The situation for the other child, the boy (CAL) was quite similar.
 The parents figured out that he was deaf when he was about 2 1/2 years
old, but the parents had some serious personal problems, and CAL played
alone until he was about 5 1/2  years old.  Then he too started at a
residential school with immersion in ASL.
    While there are many studies with adults who as children tried the
oral approach and "failed", so then acquired ASL (Newport, and
colleagues), and there are several studies with children who try the
oral approach, and develop a home sign system (Goldin-Meadow and
colleagues), there are no reported studies of children who went from
no/minimal language exposure to full exposure in a natural human
language, as children acquiring the language.  The closest reported
literature is that of Genie, by Susan Curtiss. The results of my thesis
will hopefully address the effects of a sensitive period for language,
when there is no physical abuse, and language exposure begins at around
age 6 years.

    Sorry if I am boring you all with this.  I will stop now.

Back to writing,

Valerie Sutton wrote:

> SignWriting List
> July 13, 2003

> Welcome, Stephanie, to the SignWriting List. I am glad you finally
> introduced yourself....;-)
> What an interesting topic for your current dissertation, Stephanie...I
> have always been curious about this question: Does everyone have a
> "native language"? What about some Deaf people, who receive oral
> training, and who are denied signing, but then later learn to sign in
> ASL and that is their only language...Are they "native ASL"? They
> cannot really say that English was their first language either...
> I have had several Deaf co-workers in that of them didn't
> have a true language until age 8, when he was finally placed in a Deaf
> residential school...and yet he seems to have good ASL...So I asked
> him....Are you a native ASL signer? He said "no"... "Are you a native
> English speaker?"...He said No...he doesn't know English that well. So
> I asked...What is your first language? He answered "ASL at age 8"...
> Val ;-)

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