Communicative Interaction: Mother Modification and Child Acquisition of American Sign Language

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1982


The communicative interaction in American Sign Language (ASL) of two deaf mothers with their deaf children was studied at 3-week intervals for 10 months to find what modification, if any, the mothers made in their language utterances addressed to the children (12–20 and 20–30 months old). As was hypothesized, and has been shown of hearing-speaking mothers’ language, modification in the direction of simplified and more linear language was found.

Special attention was paid to POINTing behavior (i.e. pointing gestures constrained by the linguistic rules of ASL) and to verb “modulation” or inflection (changes from ASL citation forms to mark the sentential arguments of verbs). Phonological, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic analyses were made of the data from these two mother-child dyads.

The language of the children was found to be like that reported in previous studies of ASL acquisition. These show verb modulation to be absent from the earlier stages, making a first appearance at about two and one half years. Lacking productive inflection of verb signs to mark semantic or grammatical roles in an utterance, the two children in this study, like those in previous studies, were found to combine deictic POINTs with lexical signs. Nearly 100% of the signs in the data base from the younger child in early sessions (ca. 12 months) are POINTs, but only 66 % in the data base from later sessions with the older child (ca. 30 months).

This study is the first to examine mothers’ language in conversations with their children for the use of the ASL verb inflecting system called Verb Modulation by Indexic Reference. In their conversations with their young deaf children the mothers do not use modulated ASL verbs. Most of their utterances contain lexical (i.e. citation) form signs and deictic POINTs. In the rare cases when modulation does occur, it is always in the presence of the verb-indicated referent, be it person, location, or object. There is only a single case of Indexic Reference in 2,035 of the mothers’ utterances; i.e. use of a point in signing space to establish an “Index” for a non-present noun referent.

The mothers in the present study do not use the rich modulation system of adult ASL with their young deaf children but instead offer a model of ASL that separates out these highly analytic units into their simple components. Furthermore, they use several strategies to ensure comprehension during the course of development from these simpler forms of reference to the complex system of referencing non-present objects, locations, and persons by Indexic Reference and Verb Modulation. The strategies listed here are discussed more fully below:

  1. Mothers bring the object they want to talk about (the referent object) directly into the dyadic conversational space; they show it. This strategy is the most explicit and does not even require the child to follow a pointing gesture to its target; it was used in an average of 20% of all the utterances of the mother of the younger child but in only 3 % of the utterances of the other.

  2. Mothers use POINTing extensively, both as a phonological replacement for other handshapes in lexical items and to mark semantic/grammatical roles in an utterance; POINTing accounts for about 50% of all signs in the mothers’ corpus.

  3. Mothers do not modulate verbs in their early conversations with their children. When modulation does occur, it is in the form of incorporating present objects, persons, and locations. As use of modulation increases so does the use of the redundant POINTing to mark grammatical/semantic roles. Locational verbs are the first to be modulated (moved toward or performed at the position of arbitrary or real Indexes).