In the ELISA project, we are investigating sign language varieties used by deaf individuals and their hearing interaction partners in Bali, Indonesia. Deaf people in these communities share a cultural background, have a similar lifestyle and perform the same religious rituals and routines. However, these deaf people have had fundamentally different communicative experiences in their everyday lives. Did they have deaf language models when growing up, such as a deaf parent or an older deaf sibling? Are the hearing people they interact with willing and able to sign with them about any topic? Do they interact with deaf people in other communities? By comparing the signers in each of these micro-communities we want to find out if and how these social factors shape the communication systems that deaf people create with their hearing relatives.

We are exploring three main factors that, in previous research, were found to be relevant for the emergence and the evolution of sign languages.

  1. Social interaction: Nobody can create a language on their own. If deaf individuals have a large and strongly connected network of communication partners, they are more likely to create a sign language with complex and stable grammatical structures.
  1. Time depth: A language needs time to grow. With every new generation that acquires a sign language, new linguistic conventions are formed and the language becomes more systematic.
  1. Gestural origins: A sign language does not come out of nowhere. Deaf people see the gestures that hearing people around them use while they speak and incorporate these gestures into their sign languages. Therefore, we often find similarities between sign languages that emerge within the same gestural environment.

Each of these questions is treated in each of the three sub-projects of ELISA.

The social lives of homesigners

In this sub-project, we focus on deaf individuals that were born into hearing families and did not learn a conventional sign language as children. Instead, they develop their own signed system of communication – called homesign – in order to communicate with their hearing relatives and friends. Our aim is to evaluate the quantity and quality of deaf homesigners’ social interactions. In terms of quantity, we document how many deaf and hearing interaction partners Balinese deaf homesigners have, how frequently they interact with other people and in which contexts these interactions take place. In order to determine the quality of social interactions, we want to find out: How successful is the communication between deaf homesigners and their interaction partners? How do they signal that they do or do not understand and which repair strategies do they use in case of communication breakdowns? Importantly, we are not only focusing on the linguistic skills of a deaf individual, but also on the input and feedback they receive from people in their environment.

The emergence of language in six generations 

The aim of this sub-project is to analyse how grammatical structures arise over the course of the generations. Kata Kolok, the sign language used in the village of Bengkala, emerged six generations ago. Since the first three generations of deaf Kata Kolok signers are no longer alive, we reconstruct what their signing might have looked like by looking at three different groups of a. Individual homesigners who interact only with hearing family members and friends. b. Communal homesigners who have regular contact with at least one other deaf homesigner. c. Intergenerational homesigners  who regularly interact or used to interact with at least one other deaf homesigner from an older generation. Individual homesigners represent generation 0, i.e. the first deaf individuals born into the community, communal homesigners represent generation I, intergenerational homesigners represent generation II. In addition, we will include language data from Kata Kolok signers of the generations III-V. By looking at specific grammatical structures, such as the use of the signing space or particular facial expressions, we investigate how the transmission of a language across several generations contributes to the emergence of linguistic conventions.

Growing a sign language in the lab

This sub-project takes an experimental approach to investigate the emergence of conventions in the visual modality by asking sign-naive participants to invent their own signs. The utterance thus produced are akin to charades, but known in the literature as silent gesture. By comparing Balinese and Dutch participant groups, we investigate to what extent regularities already available in co-speech gesture might jumpstart the emergence of conventions in an incipient sign system. One of our target domains is the use of a geocentric versus an egocentric spatial reference system as is customary in Bali versus the Netherlands. In addition, we look into the role of language learning in the emergence of conventions from one generation to the next by showing participants the silent gestures of their experimental predecessors. Last but not least, by manipulating the extent to which linguistic repair and feedback is facilitated in our experimental design, we investigate to what extent social interaction boosts this process.