Proximalization in sign language

Signing activates a series of joints along the arm and hand from the shoulder and elbow to the wrist and knuckles.

As infants learn to control joints of the arm, they acquire a new motor skill starting from the shoulder to the elbow and down to the details from wrist to knuckles of fingers over a period of time.

In this process, infants often sign in bigger movement patterns from the shoulder (the joints most proximal to the torso) and gradually to the wrist and knuckles (the joints most distal to the torso).

A case study: Juli

The video below shows an example of proximalization in a child whose native language is American Sign Language (ASL).

In this video, the time-lapse demonstrates the process from early production of BEAR to the complete production.

Babies acquiring ASL as a first language tend to omit distal articulators and more likely to introduce a proximal articulator.

For example,

"Skilled use of the distal articulators depends on skilled use of proximal articulators whereas the converse is not true." (p 205)

Early proximalization

The baby Juli (0;11,1) batted her hands alternatively on thighs.

The baby Juli (0;11,2) continued to practice banging or batting alternatively with her hands. The alternating movement is an important developmental skill which would incorporate into some ASL words (e.g. maybe).

What stood out among some new ASL words was producing on her torso. Before that, her babbling mostly took place in neutral space in front of her body and on her lower face.

Initially she babbled with arms crossed on her torso (phonological structure similar to love and bear, in which I frequently used these two ASL words with her.

But, this arms-crossing quickly disappeared into a symmetrical or lateral position as commonly found in the phonological development among toddlers.

Prior to last week, Juli produced bear, in which the location part of the sign took place in neutral space.

This week Juli began to produce bear on her torso.

Crossing arms on chest

Following this week, out of blue sky Juli (age 2;5) practiced signing bear with the specific focus on crossing her arms across her chest. She spreaded out her arms and then crossed her arms on her chest.


For information on proximalization of movement in signing specifically ASL, see studies done by reserachers Mirus, G., Rathmann, C., and Meier, R.P.

"Proximalization and Distalization of Sign Movement in Adult Learners." Signed Languages: Discoveries from International Research. Gallaudet University Press.

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