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.

At age 3;10, Juli changed her name from time to time. She named herself HORSE. One early morning, I told Juli to get her socks on before she could put her shoes on. Juli replied, #NO, HORSE HAVE CL:S-hooves. NOT NEED SOCKS. I explained that hooves were a form of socks so she needed them. She answered, SOCKS INSIDE IX-foot CL:1-FROM-MOUTH-DOWN (pathline classifier).

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This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.