Do parents modify child-directed signing to emphasize iconicity?

Front Psychol. 2022 Aug 25:13:920729. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.920729. eCollection 2022.

Abstract

Iconic signs are overrepresented in the vocabularies of young deaf children, but it is unclear why. It is possible that iconic signs are easier for children to learn, but it is also possible that adults use iconic signs in child-directed signing in ways that make them more learnable, either by using them more often than less iconic signs or by lengthening them. We analyzed videos of naturalistic play sessions between parents and deaf children (n = 24 dyads) aged 9-60 months. To determine whether iconic signs are overrepresented during child-directed signing, we compared the iconicity of actual parent productions to the iconicity of simulated vocabularies designed to estimate chance levels of iconicity. For almost all dyads, parent sign types and tokens were not more iconic than the simulated vocabularies, suggesting that parents do not select more iconic signs during child-directed signing. To determine whether iconic signs are more likely to be lengthened, we ran a linear regression predicting sign duration, and found an interaction between age and iconicity: while parents of younger children produced non-iconic and iconic signs with similar durations, parents of older children produced non-iconic signs with shorter durations than iconic signs. Thus, parents sign more quickly with older children than younger children, and iconic signs appear to resist that reduction in sign length. It is possible that iconic signs are perceptually available longer, and their availability is a candidate hypothesis as to why iconic signs are overrepresented in children's vocabularies.

Keywords: American Sign Language; child-directed language; deafness; iconicity; language development; parent input; sign duration.