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  • Psychology
  • Developmental
  • Linguistics


Statement of Problem. Language learning occurs in a setting where the child hears some utterances, and observes some co-occurring "contexts". These contexts are often assumed to aid the child in deciphering meaning-form mappings. Blind children have access to diminished and/or different contexts from sighted children, hence provide the opportunity to assess the role of context in language learning. Maximal differences should occur for language that refers to purely visual terminology, e.g. sighted verbs.^ Procedures and Methods. Three blind children were studied longitudinally for three years, and compared to sighted controls. Spontaneous speech samples of all children were analyzed for syntactic and semantic character and growth. One of the children was studied longitudinally for her production and comprehension of visual verbs, see and look.^ Results. The children's spontaneous speech was similar to sighted controls in structure, rate of growth, and semantic content. Two differences were: (1) late onset of language for the two premature blind subjects, possibly due to an interaction of blindness and prematurity; (2) slower development of the verbal auxiliary system in all three blind subjects, best explained by restricted linguistic input to the children. Their mothers used increased imperatives and reduced question forms, a pattern previously associated with slower growth of the auxiliary system in sighted children.^ The blind child studied developed two coherent meanings for terms look and see: (1) to refer to her own, haptic activity of exploration, contrasting it with touch, which referred to simple contact with the hands; (2) to refer to the activity of sighted people, indicating knowledge of many spatial properties of vision.^ Conclusions. The competence shown by the blind children suggests the following properties of "contexts". They must be composed of abstract perceptual and conceptual units, not sensations; the blind child and her mother differ in sensuous experience, yet may find common ground in their perceptual/conceptual parsing of scenes. This would permit learning of words referring to objects, events, and relationships; and even look, on the interpretation that it means to both, "explore with your best modality." Second, complete overlap in concepts is not necessary for language learning. For where maximal differences exist in the mother's and child's percept/concept--i.e. sighted meanings for look--learning still proceeds unexceptionally. The role of various additional input factors is considered, including the child's linguistic and spatial knowledge. ^

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