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How Sign Languages Develop

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Y:        Hey Don, play charades with me for a minute. Guess what I'm doing.

D:        You're holding something in your hands... you're moving your hand... are you petting a cat? Okay, you're shaking your head no. Now you're holding something up to your eye, you're... pressing a button? You're pointing to my mouth and smiling... does that mean I'm supposed to smile? Are you a photographer?

Y:        Yes!

D:        Great! I win! What do I get?

Y:        I guess you get the first step to creating a sign language.

D:        Is this how they start?

Y:        Researchers think so. And, according to one study, it only takes five generations of learners for a pantomime to become a stable sign.

D:        How did they find that out?

Y:        Researchers taught an initial group of volunteers gestures for words in four categories: people, locations, objects, and actions. To start, a volunteer would act out a word like "photographer" with a lot of inefficient, inconsistent gestures, like I just did. Then that group was asked to demonstrate the gesture to another volunteer, who tried to guess its meaning by choosing from a set of answers. The next generation of volunteers were taught the gesture the previous volunteer had remembered and demonstrated. After a few generations, the signs became streamlined and more efficient, and even had a marker for category, like the signer pointing to themselves for a word in the "person" category.

D:        I want to try now. Guess what word this is.

Y:        Okay, you're flapping your arms around... you're jogging in place... now you're drawing something with your hand, but I can't tell what it is... We need more practice at this.
Lao sign language

Children learning Lao sign language. (Big Brother Mouse, Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers think that the first steps in the creation of a sign language likely resemble a game of charades. According to one study, it only takes five generations of learners for a pantomime to become a stable sign.

Researchers taught an initial group of volunteers gestures for words in four categories: people, locations, objects and actions. To start, a volunteer would act out a word like "photographer" with a lot of inefficient, inconsistent gestures, like a game of charades.

Then that group was asked to demonstrate the gesture to another volunteer, who tried to guess its meaning by choosing from a set of answers. The next generation of volunteers were taught the gesture the previous volunteer had remembered demonstrated.

After a few generations, the signs became streamlined and more efficient, and even had a marker for category, like the signer pointing to themselves for a word in the "person" category.

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