The role of gesture in the acquisition of a sign language as a second language

Old Gym LG09
Tuesday 22 October 2019 (16:15-17:15)

English Language Research Seminar

  • Speaker: Gerardo Ortega (Birmingham)


Learners of a second language (L2) commonly rely on their first language (L1) to break into the novel linguistic system. One would expect that due to the modality differences between speech(oral-aural) and sign (manual-visual), learners of a sign language as a second language lack a system that could alleviate some of the burden to learn the target language. However, hearing non-signers have at their disposal a repertoire of gestures which are expressed in the same modality as signs and share the property of iconicity, i.e., the direct relationship between form and meaning. In many instances signs and gestures may overlap in meaning due to their iconic links to the concept they represent. In this talk I will present data from a three-year project investigating how iconic gestures assist making form-meaning association at the earliest stages sign L2 learning.

We elicited silent gestures from a group of hearing non-signers and found that for many concepts, they have a set of systematic gestures that can be generalized across the population. These systematic gestures overlap in form and meaning to different degrees with conventionalised signs. In a learning context, we found that when iconic gestures overlap with the form of iconic signs, learners are more accurate at guessing their meaning and they assign higher iconicity ratings. These similarities are also detected at the neurological level given that learners’ brain signals process iconic signs with low resemblance with gestures as unexpected, novel manual forms. However, after intense sign learning, all signs are processed with equal ease.

The general picture that emerges is that learners’ recruit their gestural system at the earliest stages of learning and that iconic gestures may function as ‘manual cognates’ that assist making form-meaning associations with a novel sign L2 lexicon.

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