Earlier Language Exposure Means Easier Learning
Decoded Science: Dr. Harmon, does earlier exposure to language promote language acquisition?
Dr. Kristen Harmon: Generally, yes, all the research shows that early exposure- for any language-means that the child learns it quicker. Late learning means late acquisition. VL2 affiliated researcher Rachel Mayberry has done some work on the dangers of late acquisition of both ASL and English.
Decoded Science: Dr. Morford could you comment on the critical periods for language acquisition?
Dr. Jill Morford: Although Rachel Mayberry is the expert on the issue, Dr. Peter Hauser from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and I have both done some research on the issue of the long-term impact of delayed exposure to language for deaf individuals.
One of the early findings from Rachel Mayberry’s work that has been replicated in my own research is that individuals who acquire their first language in adolescence are slower to recognize what a sign means. Rachel has asked participants to watch signed sentences and repeat them, and I have asked participants to watch just the first few frames of a sign and try to decide what the sign is even before seeing the full sign. Rachel’s study shows that late learners tend to repeat signs that look similar to the signs in the sentence (e.g., replacing AND with SLEEP), but have an entirely different meaning. My study shows that late learners need to see about 30 ms more of a sign before they can figure out what sign it is relative to native learners. These studies combined suggest that late learners are more susceptible to misunderstanding during language processing than native signers.
Decoded Science: Is there a difference in the rate of ASL acquisition of second language learners?
Dr. Jill Morford: Yes, second language learners of ASL are also slower than native signers to comprehend signs, but they are usually able to recover from their errors more easily than late first language learners.
Decoded Science: So the early acquisition of a first language affects the acquisition of a second language later?
Dr. Jill Morford: Yes, this tells us that there is something special about learning a language in the earliest years of life that can’t be replaced even by many years of language practice at a later age.
Decoded Science: How can you see the Baobab app helping with language acquisition?
Dr. Jill Morford: For deaf children who are receiving little comprehensible language at home, The Baobab app offers a language model that is engaging and fun to watch.
The app was designed with hearing parents in mind, who are not yet fully fluent in ASL. Suppose hearing parents would like to sign with their child, but they are not yet comfortable signing. The Baobab app provides a way for parents and children to learn together by watching the signed story as a narrative, or by moving sentence by sentence through the story with support for individual English words that they don’t know how to sign in ASL.
English and ASL are separate languages with distinct vocabulary and grammar, so there’s no one-to-one match between every English word and every ASL sign, but the app can help parents to feel comfortable by providing enough signs to create a meaningful story for them to share with their child. Both parent and child can also sit back and be amazed by the beauty of the artistry and the expressive storytelling in the narrative mode – what better way to get motivated to learn more ASL!
Better Language Acquisition: Expose Kids to Languages Early
For better acquisition, do not delay exposing your children to their first language, be it ASL or spoken English. Early first language acquisition helps later with second language acquisition. Early exposure helps kids – and storybook apps may just be the way to integrate a new language into your child’s environment.