UW Today

This is an archived article.

June 4, 2002

Hearing infants show preference for sign language over pantomime

NEW ORLEANS — Six-month-old hearing infants exposed to American Sign Language (ASL) for the first time prefer it to pantomime, lending new evidence that humans show a broad preference for languages over “non-languages,” according to a University of Washington researcher who will present her findings here Friday at the annual convention of the American Psychological Society.

“Infants seem to be set up to pay attention to language at birth and we’ve seen they have a remarkable sensitivity to spoken language. This work is important because it broadens this bias to include an unfamiliar language in a completely unique modality,” said Ursula Hildebrandt, a UW doctoral student in psychology, who will outline her research in a poster session. “It suggests that there may be something in all languages, both spoken and signed, that is interesting to infants.”

To test the reaction of infants to ASL and pantomime, Hildebrandt set up an experiment to check the visual preferences of 17 boys and 17 girls. All of the infants had normal hearing, were full-term at birth and had no previous exposure to sign language or pantomime. Each child was held by their mother or an experimenter in front of two television monitors.

One monitor showed stories told in ASL by an actress while the other simultaneously displayed the same actress performing pantomime stories. The sequences were matched for length and grouped into trials that lasted about 40 seconds. The infants’ faces were videotaped to see where their eyes were directed. Each infant saw six trials, and the ASL stories and mime sequences were randomly switched between the monitors.

An example of an ASL story was: “I went to the grocery store and couldn’t decide what to buy. I remembered my daughter liked chicken, so that’s what I got.” A typical pantomime sketch showed the actress pretending to reach into a cupboard to get a pan and an egg. Then she mimed cracking the egg into the pan and flipping the egg over.

The babies consistently preferred sign language to pantomime throughout the trials. Overall, they spent about two minutes looking at ASL, 90 seconds looking at pantomime and 30 seconds looking elsewhere.

“Even with the freedom to look at either screen, statistically, we see a significant preference for the language rather than the non-language,” said Hildebrandt. “Babies find both interesting, but overall they find something more interesting in signing.”

To further explore this line of research, Hildebrandt and her advisor, David Corina, a UW psychology associate professor, are currently repeating the ASL-mime experiment with 9-to-10-month-old infants to see if this early preference for signing disappears in older infants. Other UW research has shown that infants have the ability to discriminate phonetic contrasts from any spoken language up to about age 9-10 months. After that their discrimination shifts to their own native language. They also are repeating the ASL-mime experiment reducing the stimuli to just the movement information. In this experiment, the hands and the body of the storyteller are wired with 12 tiny lights and all the infants can see are the lights moving on the TV monitors. This will attempt to isolate what exactly it is about the signing that is interesting to infants.

Hildebrandt will deliver her poster at noon (CDT) Friday at the APS meeting at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel. Her poster also was singled out by APS as one of four winners of the organization’s student research competition.

The research is funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders and the UW’s Center for Mind, Brain & Learning.


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For more information, contact Hildebrandt at (206) 543-4309 or ursulac@u.washington.edu. She will be in New Orleans June 5-9 and messages can be left at the APS headquarters hotel, the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, (504) 525-2500.