ASL Polar Express Shows Off Developing Language Skills


Rejoice! Shaylee, the daughter of ASL Nook’s Sheena McFeely and Manny Johnson, is back with a new ASL Christmas story. We've been watching her storytelling skills develop for a few years now. When she was 4, we cooed over her version of The Night Before Christmas. The next year she made our hearts grow three sizes with How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Then last year we laughed and shouted out with glee at the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Though ASL is in many ways different from spoken language, when it comes to the timeline of natural childhood language acquisition, it is almost exactly the same. (Shaylee's parents are Deaf signers, so her environment is an ideal one for this process to unfold.) At 4, we saw her get comfortable with grammatical concepts like topic/comment structure. At 5, she expertly navigated the expression of character perspective. At 6, her understanding of narrator voice was solid. Now, with this performance of The Polar Express, we can see an impressive mastery of ever more subtle and complex aspects of storytelling, like prosody.

Prosody refers to rhythm and voice intonation in spoken language. For sign, there is no vocal intonation, but there are prosodic features like blinks, eye gaze, body shifts, and the tension and speed of signs. Because there is so much vocabulary in common among Christmas stories, we can take a look at prosody development by comparing the same signs from Shaylee now with three years ago.

For example, note the difference between "Santa gets on his sleigh" then and now. The first has a cute, babyish "tone of voice." The second has a mature, narrator tone.

The articulation of the sign itself on the hands is crisper, neater, and, with regard to narration, more intentional. The same can be seen in the change to "very old" in the last few years.

Thanks again, Shaylee! For sharing your holiday spirit with us, and for showing us the marvel of language acquisition in action.