The legacy of the universal gesture language

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The legacy of the universal gesture language
The legacy of the universal gesture language

The Legacy of the Universal Gesture Language

The development of language, both on an evolutionary scale and in the individual, has been the subject of heated debate for many years. One of the contentious questions is whether language has to be learned or whether some necessary basic knowledge is innate. Recent research shows that deaf children from very different cultures spontaneously develop similar gestures for communication. In their struggle for recognition of sign language, deaf people repeatedly point out that their system of gestures and facial expressions is a natural form of language. The results of the study by Susan Goldin-Meadow and Carolyn Mylander of the University of Chicago support their argument. They strongly suggest an innate language structure used intuitively by deaf children (Nature 15. January 1998).

In the 1950's, Noam Chomsky championed the idea that language is innate and that there is a "universal grammar" in particular. In modern language research, his view dominated. Learning a language is such a difficult task that without some innate knowledge of its grammatical structure it seems insurmountable.

After all, the sentences and fragments that a child experiences sometimes have a grammatical structure and sometimes not - without this being marked accordingly. Regardless of the different language experiences, children move towards the same grammar. Consequently, there are strong inherent limitations on the possible language structures. The ability to generalize and invent new words requires a certain set of rules to act on.

While there is compelling evidence for the existence of innate structures of language, new ideas have emerged in the scientific literature. Even the newer models assume that there are innate abilities that limit language learning. However, they question whether these skills include knowledge of grammatical structures. The new theories do not deny that children are born with skills that enable them to learn language. Rather, they are skeptical that these capacities include knowledge of linguistic “universal laws.”

Susan Goldin-Meadow and Carolyn Mylander also asked: “What could it mean when we say that language is innate? Or, conversely, that it has to be learned?” They wanted to know: “What aspects of language development are so determinative for humans that they occur even under learning conditions that deviate considerably from typical ones?”

Rather than relying on purely anecdotal evidence, researchers have found a way to test which aspects of language structure are innate."The study involved deaf children with hearing loss so extensive that acquisition of spoken language was precluded," says Goldin-Meadow. Deaf children who have no exposure to traditional language-spoken or signed-still use gestures to communicate.

Perhaps the children tend to use gestures because normal-hearing parents naturally use gestures when they speak. However, the movements of people with normal hearing hardly form "chains" as with real sentences. But it is different with the observed deaf children. "Despite the lack of an accessible traditional language as a model for communication, these children still communicate: through a gestural system with a word- and sentence-level structure," notes Goldin-Meadow. The children produced chains of gestures with a language-like structure.

The researchers studied children from China and America who spontaneously developed the same language patterns despite different cultures and languages."Although the children communicated through different events," says Goldin-Meadows, "still structural similarities developed in the two cultures. The most striking finding was that the gestures of deaf children in America were more similar to those of deaf children in China, halfway around the world, than to those of their hearing mothers in the same household.”

The gestural sentences showed similarities in the inserted or deleted semantic elements as well as in the order in which the information was conveyed. The so-called ergative language pattern, according to which the subject designates the acting person in intransitive sentences, but the goal of the action in transitive, prevailed in the spontaneous gestures. For example, for children who design a gesture meaning "to hit the boy," the boy would always be hit instead of being the hitter himself. According to some evidence, there was a tendency for transitive actions to be associated with gestures moving in space. This tendency was not observed for intransitive actions. While the ergative language pattern is common in many spoken languages, it does not exist in either English or Mandarin Chinese. Consequently, the forms of the gestures did not come from the parents.

The "universal grammar" described by Chomsky apparently does exist. However, his suggestion that grammar appears to have been created for beauty rather than utility is best ignored. Apparently the complexity of the language really comes from the minds of the children, enriched with decorations by some rules from books. This work will not end the debate about which aspects of language are innate, but will certainly continue to stimulate it.

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