University of Hong Kong > School of Humanities

The Role of Iconicity in Sign Language Acquisition
- Gerardo Ortega, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen

Thu 21 Sep 2017, 3:30 pm
Room 4.04, 4/F Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU


The study of iconicity, defined as the direct relationship between a linguistic form and its referent, has gained momentum in recent years. In the spoken modality, there is abundant evidence showing that iconicity is a key factor that facilitates acquisition. However, when we look at sign languages, which excel in the prevalence of iconic structures, there is a more mixed picture. While the first studies investigating first language (L1) acquisition report a null or negative effect of iconicity, recent studies show that it may be a key factor that facilitates lexical development in deaf children. Similarly, studies exploring the acquisition of a sign language as a second language (L2) by hearing adults show positive and negative effects in lexical development. In this talk I will present a number of empirical studies that aim to reconcile these conflicting arguments. Regarding L1 acquisition I will argue that the contradicting findings may relate to iconicity being defined in a very broad sense, and that when operationalise iconicity into more fine-grained types we can observe an effect. In particular I will argue that signs representing bodily actions may occupy a chief place in sign L1 acquisition. Regarding sign L2 acquisition, I will demonstrate that there is a clear dissociation in the effect of iconicity in that it facilitates conceptual-semantic aspects of sign learning but hinders the acquisition of the exact phonological form of signs. I will argue that when we consider the gradient nature of iconicity and that signs consist of a phonological form attached to a meaning we can discern how iconicity impacts sign learning in positive and negative ways.

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