Unimodal Bilingualism in Sign Language

We’ve come a long way since experts advised against children learning two languages in childhood. Now the new frontier is people who learn two different sign languages, and how that affects their development. Also, we talked about some other interesting things because tangents are fun. Click for slides and feel free to email Dr. Chen Pichler if you have questions!

Unimodal Bilingualism


Bilingual First Language Acquisition: Exposure to two spoken languages from birth (L-a and L-alpha because they came together)

Bilingual Second Language Acquisition: Sequential exposure with L1 and L2

(Bimodal) Bilingual First Language Acquisition; Coda: Exposure to a sign language and spoken language from early childhood

Second Modality – Second Language Acquisition: Acquisition of a sign language and spoken language sequentially

First Modality – Second Language Acquisition: Acquisition of two sign languages sequentially

Blending in sign language:

  • Children will switch from sign language to sign language in birth
  • Switching from sign language to spoken language is rare (usually will do them together)
    • Sometimes will do both and then drop one and pick it up later

Cool note: It turns out that heritage speakers (people who were fluent in a language in pre-elementary school but lost it, usually immigrants) who haven’t fully developed the advanced grammatical structures will adopt some of their first language’s (Russian speaker will lose one of the three genders after learning English.)

Semi-lingual – Deaf people who didn’t learn ASL early enough to acquire it as a first language but didn’t learn English until later (this makes it very difficult for them to learn language)

Childhood exposure

How can babies in the womb be exposed to sign language?

  • Rhythm/chunking of large motions
  • Vibrations

Babies prefer to look at ASL signers over people pantomiming (even the same content), demonstrating that they can distinguish motion from language and they are attuned to language, perhaps because they can sense the rhythm

Studying unimodal bilingualism

Bimodal Bilingualism Error – new signers of signs remember the signs as gestures and thus make phonological mistakes

Surely unimodal bilinguals won’t make this mistake!


Key question: Is sign-sign bilingualism more like spoken-spoken bilingualism or spoken-signed bilingualism? Or is it like neither?

  • There is no switch cost for code-switching between sign languages (people can switch between sign languages without the pauses and errors.
    • ???
    •  Are sign languages special?
    •  Or do we just need to do more research?
  • ASL is very homogenous compared to say Italian Sign Language because it was developed by a central school and spread

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