Expression of Perspective, Location and Motion in British Sign Language(PaLM)

Investigators: Dr. Kearsy Cormier, DCAL & Ms. Sandra Smith,
Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol
Project duration: 2006-2011

Project description - summary (update Mar 2010)

British Sign Language (BSL) uses two main types of perspective, particularly in stories but also in everyday conversation. With constructed action, signers use their head, face and/or body to “become” a character, to describe what a character says, does, thinks or feels. With whole entity classifiers, the signer’s hands represent different characters and objects, and the space in front of the signer is used to map out the location and motion of these characters and objects. Fluent signers use these two perspectives, either separately or both at the same time, to describe action, location, and motion of characters and objects. Research on American Sign Language has shown that acquisition of each of these perspectives in deaf signing children begins at about 3 years of age but progresses slowly. There has been very little research about how deaf children learn to use constructed action and entity classifiers in BSL. The PaLM project traces the development of these two perspectives in deaf children longitudinally at ages 6, 8 and 10; we also look at how these two perspectives are used by deaf adults.

We have finished filming adult signers and child signers at age 6 and the same children again at age 8. Some initial analysis is complete for adult data and child data at age 6. Overall our findings so far suggest that the ability to use entity classifiers for vehicles may emerge in all children very early. However, the use of entity classifiers to depict people and animals could be delayed in children (particularly in children with little experience in BSL) because constructed action is always an option, and it seems, an easier option. Constructed action is much less language-specific than entity classifiers and used by both signers and non-signers; however, the way that constructed action is embedded in language (e.g. within stories) is a skill that takes deaf children time to acquire.

Although children do start to use both constructed action and entity classifiers as young as 2 years old, it can take many years to master both perspectives, separately or both at the same time. Research on American Sign Language has shown that native signers even up to around age 12 can still struggle with these perspectives. Adult sign language learners struggle with them as well. Knowing more about how these perspectives are used by signers with different backgrounds can help us understand why these perspectives are mastered so late in BSL, which is important for BSL tutors and adult learners of BSL, interpreter trainers, language therapists, and especially teachers of deaf children. Results from this project could also be used to develop BSL and other sign language assessments in the future.

A more detailed project update (March 2010) is available here.

The PaLM project team

Project Leaders: Dr. Kearsy Cormier (DCAL) & Ms. Sandra Smith (Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol)
Research Assistants:Kate Rowley (DCAL), Ramas Rentelis (DCAL), Fanny Limousin (Univ. Paris 8)
Animation Technician: Musaab Garghouti
Project Secretary: Raychel Hills, Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol
Postgraduate student: Zed Sevcikova, DCAL

This research project is funded by

AHRC logo