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Type of iconicity matters in the vocabulary development of signing children

Ortega, G., Sumer, B., & Ozyurek, A. (2017). Type of iconicity matters in the vocabulary development of signing children. Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 89-99. doi:10.1037/dev0000161.
Recent research on signed as well as spoken language shows that the iconic features of the target language might play a role in language development. Here, we ask further whether different types of iconic depictions modulate children’s preferences for certain types of sign-referent links during vocabulary development in sign language. Results from a picture description task indicate that lexical signs with 2 possible variants are used in different proportions by deaf signers from different age groups. While preschool and school-age children favored variants representing actions associated with their referent (e.g., a writing hand for the sign PEN), adults preferred variants representing the perceptual features of those objects (e.g., upward index finger representing a thin, elongated object for the sign PEN). Deaf parents interacting with their children, however, used action- and perceptual-based variants in equal proportion and favored action variants more than adults signing to other adults. We propose that when children are confronted with 2 variants for the same concept, they initially prefer action-based variants because they give them the opportunity to link a linguistic label to familiar schemas linked to their action/motor experiences. Our results echo findings showing a bias for action-based depictions in the development of iconic co-speech gestures suggesting a modality bias for such representations during development.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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