Sign language phonology in ASL handshapes: I, L, Y

Below describes a phonological development in sign language for the phonologically related handshapes: ILY, I, L, Y, L, and lastly E.

Please note that while every signing child follows similar patterns of phonological development, it may vary from child to child in terms of both progression and pace.

The emergence of ILY handshape in ASL

For the past few months (prior to age 2;8,2), the toddler Juli had been waving "ILY" with the handshape "W". The waving ILY stands for "I love you." It is a combination of three handshapes I, L, and Y. It had been one of the most commonly used ASL words since Juli was newborn.

Lately, Juli began to form the handshape "horn" with the thumb closed. Eventually, the thumb began to unfold into the correct handshape ILY within a week or two. This handshape is one of the most difficult handshapes to develop, usually in the late phonological stages.

That time, I was still waiting for the handshapes "L" and "I" to emerge. These handshapes seemed phonologically related to the ILY handshape. But, I might be wrong. Now that Juli could form the ILY handshape well, I began to introduce her to the Y handshape as in ASL "yellow".

First, it emerged in its standalone handshape, ILY. Within the next week, Juli was able to produce camping and airplane with the ILY handshape.

The emergence of Y handshape in ASL (2;8,4)

As I had predicted, the handshapes Y and I would be the next emergences as those handshapes appeared to be phonologically related. I introduced Juli to the handshape Y as in yellow and yogurt.

While that, I continued to play a few ASL words with the ILY handshapes with Juli, as in airplane and camping, to keep up with her practice.

By the time Juli was comfortable with forming the ILY handshape especially with her right hand, she began to practice forming the Y handshape, sometimes or often the "horn" handshape.

For the next few weeks, forming the individual handshapes Y, I, and L had been challenging. Whenever she formed the letter I, she ended up forming the combination of I and T. The handshape T helped her form and hold the manual letter I. This was somehow phonologically related to the earlier "horn" handshape for ILY.

As for the manual letter L, she had a difficult time forming it. Likewise, for the letter or handshape "F" as it was phonologically related to L.

About a month later, Juli successfully formed the manual letter Y at ease as in yellow, mainly motivated by her favorite yellow organic lollipop.

The emergence of the handshape "I" in ASL

Juli (age 2;9,2) had been comfortable forming the ILY handshape. Next, she practiced the handshapes "Y" and "I" (or "J"). Initially, she formed the handshape "Y" okay. Lately, she practiced with the form of "I" or "J" as in Jane (one of her ASL-speaking preschool teachers).

However, as she began to attempt to form the handshape "I" or "J". For "I", Juli often formed a combination of the handshapes "T" and "I". For "Y", she sometimes or often formed the "horn" handshape.

Interesting, these handshapes "ILY", "Y", "I", horn, and T-I were phonologically interrelated. The handshape ILY was the base of all that Juli comfortably formed it, somehow easily.

As for forming the handshape "I", Juli added "T" to it. I could see the reason for it. Like the handshape "R", Juli used it to help her form the handshape U and V later. Because, the form "R" helped her hold two fingers together by crossing it like hooking it to hold them together.

It was what appeared that Juli used the handshape "T" to help her hold the thumb inside for the letter "I" and "J".

Then next month, Juli successfully formed the letter I without the support of T. However, on and off, she used the I-T or J-T during the middle of this transition.

Surprisingly, at that time she produced drawing perfectly with the right "I" handshape.

By age 2;10,2, Juil also formed the handshapes Y, L, and I somehow at ease. In no time, she would form them at ease in signing.

The emergence of handshape F in ASL

Grandpa K dropped Juli (age 2;9,3) off at my home. Juli kneeled down and searched in her backpack in our backyard. She and I were surprised to find a straw drink that she didn't use it at preschool. Repeated after me, she uttered find drink with the right handshape F for find.

Further, I encouraged Juli to produce cat with the handshape F. Eventually, she was able to form "F" in tea every time I reminded her.

Shortly before and after the Halloween, Juli played ghost sometimes. She signed ghost to ask me to play ghost. I'd remind her to produce it with the handshape F.

In the next few weeks, Juli was able to form the letter F when reminded without helping mold her hand. It was a transition period between the comfortable handshape error of "6" and the correct handshape "F".

Like the manual letter "Y", it took about a month more or less to complete the transition process.

Observing some interesting parallels between Juli's first language acquisiton (L1) and my ASL 101 students' second language acquisition (L2). Some students and Juli sometimes confused the handshape "F" with "6" as well as the handshape "D" with "F".

The emergence of the ASL handshape L

The day Juli (age 2;10,1) first formed the handshape ILY with ease about two months ago. Since then, she had developed forming the individual handshapes: Y, I, and L.

Since then, the handshape Y had been rudimentary. She often formed a horn handshape instead of the complete "Y". Now she finally could form the handshape Y as in yellow and yogurt.

Quickly following the handshape Y, I thought it was time to focus on the letter I and L. She used the "T" to form the manual letter I -- a combination of the handshapes I and T, in which the handshape T helped her hold or control the handshape I. She accomplished it with the ASL sign line.

One day this week, I put the gloves on her hands. She played with the gloves, playing with the fingers. She showed me the manual letter "L" to my surprise. Now she tried the other hand, proudly forming the letter "L". I told her, wow!

From there on, Juli invented a game, putting her L on my L. I asked her to fingerspell her name Juli. As she reached the letter L, she was distracted. She reached for my handshape L.

The emergence of ASL handshape E

At age 2;10,3, the toddler Juli finally formed the handshape E as found in easter, fs-ferret.

Prior to that, she used the handshape error "S" in replacement of "E" as in easter. She quickly transformed it into handshape E with ease.

The marked handshape "E" is not a common phonological use in the language of ASL.

During that time, Juli quickly answered stay with the correct handshape Y. She formed it comfortably that surprised me. She struggled forming it in the last few weeks. As she formed it comfortably, the handshape E began to form.

Language development: good night game

Nightly at bedtime as Juli tucked under the blanket, I would always sign "good night". Juli replied good+night. Then I signed, "I love you." She imitated, "I love me." She did at around 18 months or so.

Evolving from this stage of the classical pronoun reversal error, Juli continued doing it to play a game every night; even since age 2, she understood pronouns and their role shifting.

Each time she signed, "I love me", I'd wait for her to correct. She pointed to me, "you". I hugged her. One night, when she pointed to herself while I pointed to her, I made a fake sadness. Then she suddenly pointed to me with a laugh.

From there on, nightly she would point to herself, waiting for me to turn sad before she pointed to me. Then I'd burst into delight and hugged her.

For the past weeks, she would point to herself and prepared me ix-you sad. Okay, I looked sad before she uttered "you". Same routine nightly. Then we'd wave ILY and kissed each other with our ILY hands.

Some of the following random words and phrases that Juli used this week: blue bus (city bus), uh-oh, where bus go? (blue city bus going in another direction), ix-loc panda mother (a large billboard of the panda and her baby panda near preschool), try turn-on water (hose), train ready to-fall cl-hit (storytelling about the Thomas train in a toy store), hmm.. ah! Yogurt (when asking her what she wanted to eat one early morning), some more shown in the video above, and other ASL words mentioned in the past months.

Instead of giving her one big piece of organic chocolate, I usually give her eight cut pieces (two at a time four times) and she always was happy. It was like she got so many -- without giving her too much. But, now she was aware of the size and made a comment, so-tiny, oh! want big, want big.

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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.