UCL Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre


The Association for Physiological Sciences publishes DCAL research in Psychological Science

14 November 2012

Date: 14th November, 2012

psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/the-road-to-language-learning-is-iconic.html" target="_blank">The road to language learning is iconic

DCAL research, led by Robin Thompson along with David Vinson, Bencie Woll and Gabriella Vigliocco and published in the journal Psychological Science sheds new light on how children acquire language.

Languages are highly complex systems that, nonetheless, most children acquire easily and in the absence of formal instructions. The arbitrary link between a word's form and its meaning appears as a particularly challenging feature of acquisition.

One of the first things people notice about sign languages is that signs often represent aspects of meaning in their form (for example, in BSL the sign EAT involves bringing the hand to the mouth as if bringing food to the mouth). Iconicity is the term used for this meaning-based relationship connecting human experience and linguistic form, and across the world's sign languages we see a high proportion of signs that are iconic. Gabriella Vigliocco, senior author on the paper, describes the work as testing the hypothesis that iconicity provides a key to understanding how children come to link words to meaning (at least for signers).

This research found that deaf children do make use of iconicity, producing and comprehending iconic BSL signs more frequently than less iconic signs. The iconic links between our perceptual-motor experience of the world and the form of a sign likely provides an imitative mechanism to support early sign acquisition (i.e., highlighting motor and perceptual similarity between actions and signs such as the sign DRINK which is produced by tipping a curved hand to the mouth representing holding a cup and drinking from it).

Importantly, these results from sign language can also be applied to spoken languages, where gestures, tone of voice, inflection, and face-to-face communication can help make the link between words and their meanings less arbitrary. "We suggest that iconicity provides scaffolding (a middle-ground) to bridge the "great divide" between linguistic form and bodily experience for both sign language and spoken language learners" says Robin Thompson.

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Notes to editors

  1. Robin Thompson works within the Language and Cognition group. The strand's research concerns how sign language can inform our understanding of the relationship between linguistic and cognitive behaviour.
  1. Deafness Cognition and Language (DCAL) Research Centre is based at University College London. DCAL is a world-renowned centre of excellence for research on BSL. The centre brings together leading Deaf and hearing researchers in the fields of sign linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience. DCAL is funded by The Economic Social Research Council (ESRC).
  1. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.