Simplified Signs and Psycholinguistics

sign language Sep 2, 2020

by Filip T. Loncke

For me, the publication of John Bonvillian’s Simplified Sign System is significant for multiple reasons. These reasons are partially personal for me as John was a friend, and a like-minded colleague, thinker and academic.  But I believe they are also significant for science, and for its application, from which many can and certainly will benefit.

Let me start with the personal: I had met John in 1981 at a conference in Bristol, England at the second international symposium on sign language research, a gathering of scholars – mainly linguists – who had started to study the sign languages of the deaf communities (American Sign Language, British Sign Language, etc.). It was one of a series of scientific meetings that we both attended, where researchers reported on how linguistic theories could be applied to sign languages – or, more interesting, how sign language data sometimes challenged existing opinions. John and I were among a few who were not “pure” linguists, i.e. not just interested in the structure of sign language as a system. We wanted to know how signs were processed in the heads of the people who used them.  Manual signs and spoken words are both linguistic symbols – that makes them similar – but there are also differences. Manual signs are processed visually. Manual signs sometimes look like something they represent (think of the sign for EATING), and manual signs do not rely on speech articulation (one of the most complicated human actions). John and a few others thought that this opened up possibilities: here we have linguistic symbols (with all the richness that comes with it) that are in a different modality: gestural, visual, and sometimes pictorial. Can we put this finding to some good use? Yes, starting in the 1970s, several educators had explored possibilities to reach out to children (and later adults) with limited access to speech by introducing signing. John was not the only one, but he was the one who approached this challenge in the most methodical, and systematic way. So, I felt John Bonvillian had an interest that I shared. John had also a dedication to turn this interest into something that can be beneficial for many. And that was something that I could admire.

But there is much more than the personal. The discovery and the recognition that the sign languages used in deaf communities were genuine linguistic systems with a syntax, morphology, and a phonology, was a breakthrough in the 1960s and 1970s. The late Professor Tervoort of the University of Amsterdam, who would be one of my PhD mentors in 1990, still felt the need to publish an article in 1973 under the title “Could there be a human sign language” – answering the sceptics in the linguistic and psycholinguistic fields who were convinced that language had to be mediated through speech in order to be linguistic. Tervoort and many of the first sign language researchers clearly demonstrated that language does not have to go through the speech channel. John Bonvillian’s work is taking all this a step further.

The development of the Simplified Signs is, in my modest opinion, of great importance for our general understanding of the human capacity to use linguistic symbols. Sign language research had taught us that deaf communities have their own full-fledged languages, but how about others? There was no reason to believe that individuals who are deaf would have less linguistic potential – hence, the expectation that sign languages are fully linguistic should not be surprising. But what about individuals who may have a less evident access to language? Individuals who are diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum, or individuals who have an intellectual or cognitive impairment? Bonvillian’s undertaking is essentially the creation of a set of symbols that can be linguistic and that may be more accessible because of the system’s gestural, iconic (pictorial) and motor characteristics. Maybe that is all it is – it may not sound like much, but it is an indication that the human capacity to learn and to use communicative symbols has fewer limitations than thought before. The project is an attempt to open doors to communication a little wider for those who find it difficult to establish a linguistic contact with others, and to learn through symbols. To us, it is a brilliantly logical culmination of decades worth of creative work in psycholinguistics and selfless service to the community.

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