Home sign

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Home sign (or kitchen sign) is a gestural communication system, often invented spontaneously by a deaf child who lacks accessible linguistic input.[1] Home sign systems often arise in families where a deaf child is raised by hearing parents and is isolated from the Deaf community. Because the deaf child does not receive signed or spoken language input, these children are referred to as linguistically isolated.[2][3]

Because home sign systems are used regularly as the child's form of communication, they develop to become more complex than simple gestures.[4] Though not considered to be a complete language, these systems may be classified as linguistic phenomena that show similar characteristics to signed and spoken language. Home sign systems display significant degrees of internal complexity, using gestures with consistent meanings, word order, and grammatical categories. Linguists have been interested in home sign systems as insight into the human ability to generate, acquire, and process language.[3][5]

Identifying features[edit]

In 1987, Nancy Frishberg set out a framework for identifying and describing home-based sign systems. She states that home signs differ from sign languages in that they:[6]

  • do not have a consistent meaning-symbol relationship,
  • do not pass on from generation to generation,
  • are not shared by one large group,
  • and are not considered the same over a community of signers.

However, there are certain "resilient" properties of language whose development can proceed without guidance of a conventional language model. More recent studies of deaf children's gestural systems show systematicity and productivity.[7][page needed] Across users, these systems tend to exhibit a stable lexicon, word order tendency, complex sentence usage, and noun-verb pairs. Gesture systems have also been shown to have the property of recursion, which allows systems to be generative. Deaf children may borrow spoken language gestures, but these gestures are altered to serve as linguistic markers. As the child develops, their utterances grow in size and complexity. Adult home signers use systems that mature to display more linguistic features than the simpler systems used by child home signers.[8][9]


Studies of home signing children and adults show consistent pairing between the form of a gesture token and its meaning. These signs are also combined in compound gestures to create new words.[8] The lack of bidirectionality in creation of home sign systems between the parent and child restricts the invention of signs with arbitrary meanings. The emergence of a conventionalized lexicon proceeds slower in a home sign system than in natural languages with a richer social network.[5][10] Study of adult home signers in Nicaragua show that home signers use gesture to communicate about number, with cardinal numeral and non-cardinal numeral markings.[11]


Home sign systems have simple morphology. Gestures are composed of parts with a limited set of handshape forms.[9] Hand shapes can be used in two ways: to represent a hand as it manipulates an object, or to represent the object itself.[7] Morphophonological patterns in handshape production are more similar to conventionalized sign language handshapes than hearing individuals’ gestures. These handshapes are high in finger complexity for object handshapes and low in finger complexity for handling handshapes.[12] Home signers also use handshape as a productive morphological marker in predicates, displaying a distinction between nominals and predicates.[13] Study of adolescent home signers show ability to express motion events, though this strategy differs from conventional sign language.[14] The motions of signs used in home sign systems can vary in length of path and directionality. Most of the hand shape morphemes could be found in combination with more than one motion morpheme, and vice versa.[7]


Within an individual system, home signers show consistency in a particular word order that distinguishes the subject of the utterance. Across home sign systems there is preference for action to be utterance-final. Structural dependency, words grouped based on a hierarchical structure or pattern, has been studied in Brazilian home signers who consistently produce modifiers with the noun modified. Gestural markers for negation (side to side head shake) and wh-form questions (manual flip) show consistent meaning, use, and position.[8][15] Home signers mark grammatical subjects in sentences and are able to distinguish the subject from the topic of the sentence.[16] These systems show some evidence of a prosodic system for marking phrase and utterance boundaries.[17]


Home signing children vary greatly in how often they display narrative skills; however, their narratives show similar structural patterns.[18] This includes elaborating on basic narrative by including setting, actions, a complication, and temporal order. Hearing mothers produce co-narration with deaf children less frequently (than hearing mothers do with hearing children), and these contributions are spoken and rarely gestural.

Conditions for emergence[edit]

The context of home sign system creation includes limited or no exposure to a spoken or signed language model, isolation from deaf children and adults, and parental choices regarding communication with the deaf child. Home sign creation is a common experience of deaf children in hearing families, as approximately 75% of hearing parents do not sign and communicate with their deaf children using a small set of gestures, speaking, and lipreading.[1] In a home with parents who are deaf or know sign language, a child can pick up the sign language in the same way a hearing child can pick up spoken language.[4]

Home signs are a starting point for many sign languages. When a group of deaf people come together without a common sign language, they may share features of their individual home sign systems creating a village sign language that may establish itself as a complete language over time. However, home signs are rarely passed on to more than one generation, because they generally fade when the deaf child is exposed to language outside of the home.[4]

Deaf children who use home sign are distinguished from feral children who are deprived of meaningful social and linguistic interaction. Home signing children are socially integrated to an extent with lack of conventional linguistic interaction. Home sign systems have some elements of language, and children who use these systems are able to acquire a natural sign language later in school.[5]

Development of a home sign system[edit]

The deaf child is the creator of a home sign system. Mothers of adult home signers in Nicaragua were evaluated to determine their role in the development of their child's home sign system. The results of this study concluded that mothers comprehended spoken Spanish descriptions of events better than home sign descriptions, and native ASL signers performed better than mothers at understanding home sign productions. This suggests that mothers do not directly transmit home sign systems to their deaf children. Though caregivers' co-speech gestures may serve as an initial foundation for their child's home sign system, children surpass this input. Hearing caregivers typically do not share the same gestural communication system with the deaf child, using fewer gestures with less consistency and displaying different sentence-level patterns. A deaf child's gestural system is more likely to overlap with that of another home signer, including cross culturally.[19][20]

Social network structure influences the development of a home sign system, impacting the conventionalization of referring expressions among members. Richly connected networks, where all participants interact with one another using the communication system, show greater and faster conventionalization. Home sign systems are typically sparsely connected networks, where the home signer communicates with each member of the network but the members do not use home sign to communicate with each other.[21]

Impact of lacking a language model[edit]

Studies by Deanna Gagne and Marie Coppola of perspective-taking abilities in adult home signers reveal that home signers do not pass experimental false-belief tasks, despite having visual observation of social interaction. False-belief understanding, integral to the development of theory of mind, requires language experience and linguistic input. Further study of these adult home signers indicates that home signers show precursor abilities for theory of mind, such as visual perspective taking.[22][23]

Lack of conventional language for numbers has been shown to affect numerical ability. In comparison to unschooled hearing and signing deaf individuals, adult home signers do not consistently produce gestures that accurately represent cardinal values of larger sets and do not exhibit effective use of finger counting strategies.[24] Further study indicates home signers are able to recall gestures used as nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but they show poor number recall, which worsens as numbers increase.[25]

Cross-cultural comparisons[edit]

Syntactic structure is similar between groups of home signers in different cultures and geographical regions, including word order preferences and complex sentence usage. For example, home sign systems of children in Turkey and the United States exhibit similar patterns in sentence-level structure.[20]

Certain gestures, such as pointing, head shaking, and shrugging, share similar meanings throughout cultures. Young children shake their heads to indicate negation before they express negative meanings through language. However, most young children use the head shake as an initial marker of negation, and replace it with speech or manual signs once language is acquired. Children using a home sign system do not have exposure to a structured language, and therefore do not replace the head shake with manual signs until language is acquired.[15]

Home sign systems differ across cultures in terms of gesture use by hearing caregivers. Compared to American mothers, Chinese mothers show more similarity in gesture form (handshape and motion) and syntax with systems used by their deaf children. In comparing narratives from Chinese and American deaf children, home signing children produce culturally appropriate narratives. Variability between home signers are group internal, with different individual home signers having their own set of gestures for the same type of object or predicate.[1][18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Hill, Joseph C.; Lillo-Martin, Diane C.; Wood, Sandra K. (2018-12-12), "Homesign systems", Sign Languages, Routledge, pp. 117–133, doi:10.4324/9780429020872-7, ISBN 978-0-429-02087-2, S2CID 239536813
  2. ^ Torigoe, Takashi; Takei, Wataru (2002). "A Descriptive Analysis of Pointing and Oral Movements in a Home Sign System". Sign Language Studies. 2 (3): 281–295. doi:10.1353/sls.2002.0013. ISSN 1533-6263. S2CID 144022392.
  3. ^ a b Hoff, Erika (2013). Language Development (Fifth ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. ISBN 9781133939092. OCLC 843489860.
  4. ^ a b c Walker, J. "Home Signs". www.signedlanguage.co.uk. Retrieved 2020-03-23.
  5. ^ a b c Begby, Endre (2016-08-17). "Language from the Ground Up: A Study of Homesign Communication". Erkenntnis. 82 (3): 693–714. doi:10.1007/s10670-016-9839-1. ISSN 0165-0106. S2CID 125691967.
  6. ^ Frishberg, Nancy. "Home Sign". Gallaudet encyclopedia of deaf people and deafness. Vol. 3. pp. 128–131.
  7. ^ a b c Mylander, Carolyn; Goldin-Meadow, Susan (1991). "Home Sign Systems in Deaf Children: The Development of Morphology without a Conventional Language Model". In Siple, P.; Fischer, S. D. (eds.). Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 41–63.
  8. ^ a b c Hill, Joseph C.; Lillo-Martin, Diane C.; Wood, Sandra K. (2018-12-12). "Homesign systems". Sign Languages. Routledge: 117–133. doi:10.4324/9780429020872-7. ISBN 978-0-429-02087-2. S2CID 239536813.
  9. ^ a b Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2005-04-05). The Resilience of Language. doi:10.4324/9780203943267. ISBN 9780203943267.
  10. ^ Richie, Russell; Yang, Charles; Coppola, Marie (2014). "Modeling the Emergence of Lexicons in Homesign Systems". Topics in Cognitive Science. 6 (1): 183–195. doi:10.1111/tops.12076. ISSN 1756-8765. PMC 3909872. PMID 24482343.
  11. ^ Coppola, Marie; Spaepen, Elizabet; Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2013-08-01). "Communicating about quantity without a language model: Number devices in homesign grammar". Cognitive Psychology. 67 (1): 1–25. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2013.05.003. ISSN 0010-0285. PMC 3870334. PMID 23872365.
  12. ^ Brentari, Diane; Coppola, Marie; Mazzoni, Laura; Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2012). "When does a system become phonological? Handshape production in gesturers, signers, and homesigners". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 30 (1) (published 2011): 1–31. doi:10.1007/s11049-011-9145-1. ISSN 0167-806X. PMC 3665423. PMID 23723534.
  13. ^ Goldin-Meadow, S.; Brentari, D.; Coppola, M.; Horton, L.; Senghas, A. (2015). "Watching language grow in the manual modality: Nominals, predicates, and handshapes". Cognition. 136: 381–395. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.11.029. PMC 4308574. PMID 25546342.
  14. ^ Morford, Jill P. (2002-01-01). "The expression of motion events in homesign". Sign Language & Linguistics. 5 (1): 55–71. doi:10.1075/sll.5.1.05mor. ISSN 1387-9316.
  15. ^ a b Franklin, Amy; Giannakidou, Anastasia; Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2011). "Negation, questions, and structure building in a homesign system". Cognition. 118 (3): 398–416. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.08.017. PMC 3658158. PMID 23630971.
  16. ^ Coppola, Marie; Newport, Elissa L. (2005-12-27). "Grammatical Subjects in home sign: Abstract linguistic structure in adult primary gesture systems without linguistic input". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 102 (52): 19249–19253. Bibcode:2005PNAS..10219249C. doi:10.1073/pnas.0509306102. PMC 1315276. PMID 16357199.
  17. ^ Applebaum, Lauren; Coppola, Marie; Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2014). "Prosody in a communication system developed without a language model". Sign Language & Linguistics. 17 (2): 181–212. doi:10.1075/sll.17.2.02app. ISSN 1387-9316. PMC 4285364. PMID 25574153.
  18. ^ a b Van Deusen-Phillips, Sarah B.; Goldin-Meadow, Susan; Miller, Peggy J. (2001). "Enacting Stories, Seeing Worlds: Similarities and Differences in the Cross-Cultural Narrative Development of Linguistically Isolated Deaf Children". Human Development. 44 (6): 311–336. doi:10.1159/000046153. ISSN 1423-0054. S2CID 145070424.
  19. ^ Carrigan, Emily; Coppola, Marie (2012). "Mothers Do Not Drive Structure in Adult Homesign Systems: Evidence from Comprehension". Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. 34 (34). ISSN 1069-7977.
  20. ^ a b Goldin-Meadow, Susan; Namboodiripad, Savithry; Mylander, Carolyn; Özyürek, Aslı; Sancar, Burcu (2015). "The Resilience of Structure Built Around the Predicate: Homesign Gesture Systems in Turkish and American Deaf Children". Journal of Cognition and Development. 16 (1): 55–80. doi:10.1080/15248372.2013.803970. ISSN 1524-8372. PMC 4316383. PMID 25663828.
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  22. ^ Gagne, Deanna L.; Coppola, Marie (2017). "Visible Social Interactions Do Not Support the Development of False Belief Understanding in the Absence of Linguistic Input: Evidence from Deaf Adult Homesigners". Frontiers in Psychology. 8: 837. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00837. ISSN 1664-1078. PMC 5454053. PMID 28626432.
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