Toddler using classifiers (depiction) in sign language

Depiction is one of the most important grammatical aspects in sign language. A classifier is a handshape in sign that represents a group of nouns. It functions like a pronoun in a verb predicate.

Early ASL classifiers (depiction) usually emerge at around age two in children exposed to native sign language since birth.

The emergence of using a classifier predicate occurred at about the same time as the emergence of an indicating verb in Juli's language development. Below describes Juli's earliest emergence of ASL classifiers to some more development.

Emerging ASL classifiers in toddler

There appears to be a parallel of development between the emergence of an imagination using fingers as little person's legs to walk across a table or her arm and the emergence of using linguistic classifier predicates. She also used a puzzle piece as a person to walk across a table.

Another example, she would use a linguistic symbol -- a bent "2" classifier for a person to sit on a chair edge or any other object. She applied this to the ASL classifier predicate (verb phrase), for example, "riding on a horse".

One day, Juli picked up a book The Giving Tree and uttered ix tree fall-down in a classifier predicate.

Another day, Juli uttered two-word utterance camera dcl-camera, where the descriptive classifier was the handshape "C". It surprised me. She has grasped a concept of using a classifier for the ASL noun "camera".

These above were the observations from last week. Eventually in the next weeks, more classifiers have emerged. For example, dog waggling-tail walk Juli ix-me (using a classifier for the waggling tail).

The emergence of ASL classifier for a vehicle

The ASL classifier "3" (horizontal) typically represents a class of vehicles, such as car, bicycle, truck, and motorcycle. This classifier is a very classical example, often used in ASL classes.

The toddler Juli (at age 2;3,2) recently began to use the partly formed "3" handshape and moved it horizontally to represent a vehicle.

The other night, Juli kneeled up on the bed and reported ix car [cl3]drive-by

. That is, the car had just passed by outside.

Also one day, she looked at the picture of Golden Gate Bridge on our iPad. She produced car [cl3]drive-across.

The other day Juli noted that the train was passing by. She produced train (cl3)passed-by. She transferred the concept of a car's classifer to the trian. This suggests that Juli captured the concept of a classifier itself.

Toddler using ASL locative classifiers

Depiction is not a simple system in sign language. It consists of an intricate system of classifiers (handshapes), verb predicates, and different types of classifiers. There are about eight types of classifiers in American Sign Language.

For example, the ASL semantic classifier (SCL) "3" (horizontal) is a class of vehicles, such as car, bicycle, truck, and motorcycle. About a month and half ago, Juli used the partly formed "3" handshape and moved it horizontally to represent a vehicle.

Then lately, in addition to semantic classifiers, Juli began to develop locative classifiers (LCL). For example, Juli produced ix-loc train cl-pathline. Instead of using the DCL for a train, she used the movement of the train, using LCL to show the pathline (movement) with the handshape "1".

Another example is that Juli produced insect lcl-bite cl-bump. Juli specified a location where the insect bite occurred (LCL) and then produced the "bump" (DCL and LCL).

She also uttered cat scratched ix-arm, where she used the locative classifier for "scratch" on her arm rather than in general space.

Juli (age 2;11,3) put a magnifier in my backpocket. I pulled it out. Juli told me, [headshake] [loc]pick-up, [loc]stay where these ASL signs are locative (ASL words inflected to make a specific spatial reference).

ASL classifier verbs: persons and others

Juli (age 2;9,3) had used the classifier 3 for a vehicle for a long while now. Recently, Juli picked up some more new classifiers to use and manipulate.

For example, the classifier for a person using the handshape "1" emerged immediately the moment I exposed it to her in our reading time. Without further exposure, she played with another hand to create two individual persons walking toward each other and meeting. She used it again a few times more afterward.

To determine her understanding of the classifer that represented an object, I asked Juli by pointing to her left classifier (handshape "1") and right classifier (handshape "1") who they were. Juli replied that one was a mother and the other was a baby.

Her ability to use her handshape to interact with the other hand demonstrated that she understood a concept of the classifier that represented a person and how she was able to manipulate it.

Since last week, Juli also used another "5 -> flat-O" verb classifier with slow speed to represent light going off gradually or going on gradually. I didn't recall of exposing it to her recently, probably a long while ago that she remembered it.

Eventually, Juli picked up a few more classifiers, such as CL-2 for a standing person and claw CL-2 for a squatting person or an animal. She also used the classifier "B" for a window while using the other handshape CL-1 for a person.

In our interactions, it was no doubt to me that Juli used classifier verbs correctly.

ASL phonological development

For a long while, Juli was able to form the handshape "R" as a standalone, but hadn't incorporated it into any ASL words with the "R" handshape. However, now Juli finally had incorporated it into the ASL words rocket.

Not only she could wiggle her thumb in turtle, but she also began to form the handshape "T". Both required the ability to control the thumb.

Juli still struggled with forming the handshape "F" which usually ended up into the handshape "W".

Even though Juli appeared to count something but the handshapes for the numbers other than one and five are difficult.

Three eggs sat on the countertop. Juli pointed at them and uttered egg three. Though she wasn't able to fully form the handshape "3" but I could see the three fingers together (slightly forward) apart from the other two last fingers (slightly backward).

ASL language development

Responding with "yes" or "no" or shaking head gradually increased more often.

Juli also began to use the ASL word want much more often now. She would point at something and uttered want, want, want.

She saw a set of swing and slide through the fence of somebody's backyard. She told me ix, want, want, want. The other day she came across a booklet of toys and pointed at the colorful cart. She asked ix, want want want. The days of innocence were over. Now she knew she could ask for what she wanted.

ASL pronouns and possessives

The toddler Juli not only continued to use possessive pronouns his/hers, yours, and mine, but she also used its as well as yours-mine in the sense of plural possessives (that is translated as "ours").

Juli also used multiple personal pronouns which was you+me (that is translated as "we" in English).

This documentation project follows a baby's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, week by week from gazing at birth to manual babbling, to first words just before the first birthday in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.

The second-year and third-year documentation continues to follow the same child's language and phonological acquisition and literacy development in ASL on a weekly basis from the one-word stage to two-word and multiple utterances.

The documentary continues to follow the same child's ASL language and literacy development on a regular basis from age three to four. It surveys ASL phonological acquisition and more complex utterances.

These posts on ASL-English bilingualism, language acquisition, and bilingual education may be of an interest for parents who raise a bilingual-bimodal child in ASL (or another signed language) and English (or another written and/or spoken language of its respective) as well as informative and educational for ASL specialists, educators, and professionals.