Segments in this Video

Sign Language on the Basketball Court (02:40)


Dr. Jonathan Miller uses a competing deaf basketball team and their coach to debunk misconceptions about sign language. Dr. Miller explains that it has vocabulary and grammar, and reveals truths about language.

Abbe de L'Epee (02:54)

Dr. Miller discusses the plight of the Deaf historically, and the 18th century French priest, Charles-Michel de L'Epee, who realized that signing was more than pantomime, encouraged it and attempted to impose French grammar on native sign.

Thomas Gallaudet (02:17)

In 19th century America, Thomas Gallaudet established the Institution for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Gallaudet University graduate, Carol Patton, explains how an American signer cannot understand British sign language.

Intelligence and the Deaf (02:47)

Prof. William Stokey explains that he was told the Deaf were hard to teach, but found a high intellectual level among his students. He realized that sign language must be capable of expressing intellectual ideas.

Binocularity and Hand Movement (03:34)

Dr. Miller says two important features developed by our primate ancestors were binocular vision and the bipedal freedom of hand movement. Slots for language development are created as the hand acts on objects.

Non-Verbal Body Language (02:47)

A speaker on the telephone demonstrates how residual hand movements accompany speech. When speaking to another person, we look for non-verbal signs of understanding. Dr. Miller notes that communication is a muscular performance.

Paralinguistic Output (03:10)

Gestures that accompany speech are synchronized with speech stress patterns. Dr. Miller compares this to the conductor's baton movements. He discusses the gestures that mime an action and emblems that are fixed in meaning.

Aboriginal Sign Language (04:35)

Dr. Miller demonstrates conventional hand movements used when the voice is unavailable. Dr. Adam Kendon studies the learned sign language of aboriginal widows who must abstain from language for 2 years.

A Deaf Poet Recites with Sign Language (03:53)

Sign languages that developed independent of speech have idiosyncratic vocabulary and grammar, unrelated to speech. Clayton Valle signs one of his poems. Dr. Miller explains the signs are translucently iconic as the subject is mostly visual.

Translucently Iconic Signs (03:43)

Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce identified visual representations as icons. Other signs are conventional representations. Intermediate signs combine the visual and conventional representation as a translucently iconic sign.

Abstraction of Signs Over Time (02:18)

Dr. Miller notes that over time, translucently iconic signs tend to become more abstract and represented by convention alone. We see a demonstration of the change in the sign for home over time.

Hand Sign Conventions (03:41)

Prof. Stokey demonstrates the versatility of hand positions in sign language, with three variables for each sign. We observe the hand configuration, place on the body, and the movement broken down for similar signs for candy, apple and jealous.

Misconceptions About Sign Language (04:06)

Dr. Miller discusses some popular misconceptions concerning sign language, such as that sign language conventions are universal. Carol Patton signs about recent studies on ASL. She explains why she prefers to sign rather than speak.

Infant Language Acquisition (02:48)

Dr. Miller explains that there is a structure common to all languages. A deaf child babbles and begins to acquire sign language. Noam Chomsky predicted a predisposition for language and a basic, universal grammar.

Credits Lending a Hand: Sign Languages and the Deaf (00:45)

Credits Lending a Hand: Sign Languages and the Deaf

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Lending a Hand: Sign Languages and the Deaf

Part of the Series : Born Talking: A Personal Inquiry into Language
DVD Price: $99.95
DVD + 3-Year Streaming Price: $149.93
3-Year Streaming Price: $99.95



Complex and highly sophisticated, sign languages have proved excellent tools for analyzing the foundation of human language capability. In this program, Dr. Jonathan Miller weaves together the history of sign languages for the Deaf with insights into the natural synergy between language, vision, and dexterity to support his conviction that there is a common mental structure underlying all languages, regardless of their outward expression. Along the way, Dr. Miller skewers a number of enduring misconceptions—for example, that sign languages are purely iconic and therefore incapable of conveying abstract ideas. (47 minutes)

Length: 47 minutes

Item#: BVL11356

Copyright date: ©1990

Closed Captioned

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Only available in USA and Canada.