John Bonvillian

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John Bonvillian
Born September 4, 1948
Alma mater Stanford University

John D. Bonvillian is a psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Interdepartmental Program in Linguistics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is known for his contributions to the study of sign language, childhood development, psycholinguistics, and language acquisition. Much of his research works with typically developing children, deaf children, or children with disabilities.

Education and early work[edit]

Bonvillian received a B.A. in Psychology from Johns Hopkins University in 1970. While an undergraduate there, he was introduced to the field of child development by Mary D. S. Ainsworth and to psycholinguistics by James E. Deese. He then attended Stanford University on a National Science Foundation doctoral fellowship, earning his Ph.D in 1974. As a graduate student, he worked primarily with Keith E. Nelson as they conducted studies on child language acquisition in typically developing children and children with disabilities. During his time at Stanford, John met William C. Stokoe, a pioneering figure in sign language research. Subsequently, the two were to work together editing the journal, Sign Language Studies. In 1974, Bonvillian accepted an appointment as an assistant professor at Vassar College. In 1978, he was then invited to join the faculty at the University of Virginia where he has continued to work since. When he joined the faculty at the University of Virginia he was reunited as a colleague with his former professors, Ainsworth and Deese, who had previously accepted appointments at Virginia. Bonvillian plans to retire from the faculty in May 2015.

Sign language acquisition[edit]

In 1979, Bonvillian commenced the first of two longitudinal studies of sign language acquisition in young children with deaf parents. These studies (conducted primarily with Michael D. Orlansky and Raymond J. Folven) were to provide valuable information on the course of American Sign Language (ASL) acquisition. Their research found that the patterns with which children developed proficiency in ASL was highly similar to the patterns with which children acquired spoken language skills. While the pattern of acquisition was similar across language modalities, many of the sign learning children attained different language milestones in ASL earlier than their hearing counterparts attained these same milestones in English. These studies also provided information on how young children learn to form ASL signs. More specifically, these data enabled Bonvillian (with Theodore Siedlecki) to develop an account of sign language phonological acquisition. Bonvillian has also conducted investigations into the use of manual signs to facilitate communication in severely speech limited or mute children. In particular, he conducted a number of studies of sign language acquisition in lower-functioning children with autistic disorder. In the 1990s, Bonvillian (with Brenda Seal) examined sign formation difficulties in children with autism. This study made it clear that for manual signs to be used easily by children with autism, then the signs should consist of a single movement and be composed by a limited number of basic or unmarked hand shapes.

Simplified sign research[edit]

For the past 15 years, Bonvillian has been working to develop a simplified, manual, sign-communication system. The initial focus of this project was to develop a sign communication system for mute or severely speech-limited individuals, such as children with autistic disorder, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy. At present, his research team has developed a simplified sign system lexicon consisting of 1650 easily formed, highly iconic signs or gestures and they are continuing to develop more. This increase in the size of sign vocabulary is being undertaken to meet the needs of students and teachers who want to use these simplified signs to facilitate the acquisition of foreign language vocabulary items. Research suggests that by performing highly iconic simplified signs with to-be-learned foreign language vocabulary items, students are able to internalize items into their memories more quickly and effectively. Bonvillian plans to publish his research findings and the first collection of his simplified signs in late 2015 or early 2016.


Bonvillian has authored and co-authored over 100 published articles and chapters. He has 28 peer-reviewed papers in Scopus. The most cited are "The relationship between maternal risk status and maternal sensitivity" Crittenden, P.M., Bonvillian, J.D., American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 54 (2), pp. 250–262 (1984), cited 26 times

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