The Acquisition of Classifiers in American Sign Language

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1980


The purpose of this study was to obtain data on the developmental stages that deaf children pass through in acquiring the adult form of pronominal classifiers in American Sign Language, by obtaining data on production, comprehension, and imitation from nine children aged three to eleven years. All nine children are congenitally, profoundly deaf and have deaf parents. In all cases classifiers were mastered much later than would be predicted from a timetable for signs with similar structure. Evidence was found for a developmental sequence and for acquisition strategies similar to those that have been identified for hearing children learning a spoken language; e.g. handshapes that could be produced correctly in non-classifier signs were replaced by motorically easier handshapes in classifier signs made by children in this study. It is suggested that this is the result of complexities associated with classifier usage.