Assistant Professor Natasha Abner presented “The Emergence of Language in Deaf Communities” at the University of California, Los Angeles, on Thursday, May 24. Abner’s lecture followed a talk by Benjamin Lewis, UCLA Lecturer in American Sign Language, titled “Understanding the Deaf World” at 5 p.m. The UCLA Linguistics Department hosted the lectures, which were held at the Kerckhoff Grand Salon, 308 Westwood Plaza, in Los Angeles, followed by a reception.
The Emergence of Language in Deaf Communities
How did human language develop? Artifacts and records allow us to study changes in language over time, but the birth of language itself pre-dates the historical record. Thus, we have no window onto this elusive ‘big bang’ of human evolution. Or do we? All around the globe, genetic and social factors conspire to create situations in which language emerges ‘from nothing’: Deaf individuals are overwhelmingly born into hearing families and often raised without access to a conventional language. Deaf individuals in these scenarios innovate communication systems that reveal the fundamental ‘built-in’ nature of language itself. As is true across human endeavors, however, communities are more powerful than individuals. The idiosyncratic communication systems of isolated Deaf individuals blossom into full-fledged languages once they become shared and transmitted among Deaf communities. Documenting these emergent sign languages offers modern-day insight into the development of our uniquely human capacity for language.