Developmental Science

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Volume 21 Issue 2 (March 2018), Pages

Mapping language to the world: the role of iconicity in the sign language input


Most research on the mechanisms underlying referential mapping has assumed that learning occurs in ostensive contexts, where label and referent co‐occur, and that form and meaning are linked by arbitrary convention alone. In the present study, we focus on iconicity in language, that is, resemblance relationships between form and meaning, and on non‐ostensive contexts, where label and referent do not co‐occur. We approach the question of language learning from the perspective of the language input. Specifically, we look at child‐directed language (CDL) in British Sign Language (BSL), a language rich in iconicity due to the affordances of the visual modality. We ask whether child‐directed signing exploits iconicity in the language by highlighting the similarity mapping between form and referent. We find that CDL modifications occur more often with iconic signs than with non‐iconic signs. Crucially, for iconic signs, modifications are more frequent in non‐ostensive contexts than in ostensive contexts. Furthermore, we find that pointing dominates in ostensive contexts, and suggest that caregivers adjust the semiotic resources recruited in CDL to context. These findings offer first evidence for a role of iconicity in the language input and suggest that iconicity may be involved in referential mapping and language learning, particularly in non‐ostensive contexts.

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