First referential words in sign language

Infants usually produce their first words when they approach their first birthday. Cooing emerge at about weeks four to six. Canonical babbling (repeated syllables) appear at about 6-7 months.

Between babbling at 6-7 months and first words in reference to objects or people at around 10 months, infants tend to overgenerize their first words to objects or people. For example, like many infants, Juli not only vocally called me "mama" but also called her father "mama". In sign language, Juli called both dogs and cats as "dog" until late 9 months old.

Producing first referential and recognizable ASL words

On several occasions, as I held Juli (10 months old, week 1) in my arms, she pointed toward the DVD player and produced a recognizable ASL word music that I clearly noticed. Contexts helped.

Prior to this, I had signed music in the past weeks, especially every time I turned on the vinyl record player. And, every time I started the vinyl record player, Juli often pointed toward the DVD player on the shelf. That is, she categorized the vinyl record player with the DVD player under the category of music.

The phonological movement of the ASL word music was well identified, which was distinct from the movement prime of done/finish.

One day, Juli looked at the artworks on the wall. She produced the "sae" babbling sequence (the same movement from the past in reference to "art") and then she turned around and pointed toward the DVD player and produced music (usually left-handed).

During the first week at 10 month old, I described how I first noticed the emerging referential ASL word music that Juli had produced. Sure enough, in the second week it had became a clearer reference in different contexts. Signing music was the rage that week.

Every time I turned on the record player, Juli produced one-handed music without using the base (arm). Likewise, Juli pointed toward the DVD player and produced music herself.

Entering a gallery room at the major gallery one day, Juli repeatedly produced music. There was music in the gallery room.

Uttering a spoken English word

In parallel to a similar language development in sign language, Juli also used spoken English. For example, she pointed to the football, and vocally produced "ball".

Other emerging words: "more" and "eat"

Toward the third week (m11w3), I paid attention to Juli's babbles and emerging words more closely but often found myself dismissing Juli's clap-like or clapping babble.

At mealtimes I found Juli often produce a "more" babble lately and I began to realize that I often dismissed it but now I began to pay attention to determine the contexts.

Each time I gave Juli a few cut pieces of the grape, she ate them all and then produced more. I saw this somehow in a more linguistic light more than just clapping.

That early week the moment I put Juli in the highchair, out of the corner of my eye, I caught her uttering eat -- 5 handshape onto the mouth a few times. It was a distinct production in the right context.

It was not the first time she produced it. I didn't take the first seriously until she produced something more than a second time. And I was also busy to take the first production seriously.

From there, Juli produced eat a few times, usually around in the kitchen.

Expressing more ASL referential words

By the end of that 11th month, Juli still produced the ASL word music which remained to be highly consistent with the referents in different contexts -- the portable DVD player, the record player, the playstation's music center, and other referents.

An usage of the ASL word finish/done had become clearer both in its reference to contexts.

Juli was seen producing eat (open 5-handshape tapping onto the mouth a few times), open 5-handshape tapping on the cheek (new, recently noticed), and a few other distinct, non-referential expressions or imitations.

Videoclip: Juli produced eat (beginning of the video). I introduced the numbers into daily life to Juli. Juli appeared to produce finish/done (end of the video).

Video clip: Juli seemed to be looking for a specific image, turning the pages and pages. She probably missed a page of what she was looking for. She then tried again and finally found a page of the cat.

Overcategorizing animals

One Monday morning a month before (age 0;9), as a frequently visiting neighbor cat passed by the low window, at the precise time Juli made some noise. The cat suddently freezed and looked up through the window.

Quickly I grabbed Juli and showed her the cat. As I pointed to the cat, the cat walked away. Coincidentally, the animal book lying nearby showed an image of the cat. I pointed at it and uttered the ASL word cat, cat, cat.

Juli looked and thought for a moment. She tapped on her lap. She associated this older ASL word with both dogs and cats.

I turned the pages, pointed to the image of a dog, and uttered #dog, then tapping on my lap. I pointed to the cat and uttered cat. I added vocalized gestures to both of them: "woof" and "meow" along with the ASL words. Juli smiled and giggled at the "woof" sounds (or maybe my facial expression).

At one point this week Juli looked at the purple stuffed giraffe and tapped on her lap. Okay, a concept of "animal" in her own language.

Categorizing cats

At age 0;10, Juli's father reported that he signed cat along with the vocalized "meow". Then the chain reaction began as follows:

Juli picked up the book and opened to the page where an image of a cat depicted. Then she went on to another book and turned the pages till an image of another cat appeared. And, next one she opened another page that contained an image of yet another cat.

categorization in language

It showed Juli's ability in categorizing a group of the cats, despite that she sometimes tapped her hand on her leg (which means "dog") when referring to a cat.

Juli had a conversation moment with her Grandma Z and Grandpa K (who had a Movember moustache).

In a particular part of the video, Juli pointed (presumbly toward the record player). Z nodded, "mother will go there." Juli "danced" and produced the ASL word music.

A word used in other contexts

Juli (m12w1) used the ASL word finish/done in the right contexts last week. It became a bit clearer this week when Grandma Z came to look after Juli for a few hours and observed the same.

When I came back home, Z reported that she noticed Juli signing done/finish within the right context -- even just in a few hours of babysitting.

Z suggested "Look closely from now on." I told her that it actually had happened for quite a while.

The video clip above shows a literacy activity with the baby Juli.

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.