Navigating Social Distancing with DeafBlind Children: ProTactile Language Acquisition in an Online Learning Environment
Blanket directives to practice social distancing, while crucial to stopping the spread of COVID-19, do not consider vulnerable populations such as DeafBlind children, who under such conditions, are at risk for social isolation and lack of critical language exposure. This project asks: How can social and linguistic channels for supporting language acquisition and cognitive development be maintained, while also adhering to rules of social engagement that are in place during the pandemic, and what can we learn about language and language creation in studying that process? Over the past decade, groups of DeafBlind adults in the United States began communicating directly with one another via reciprocal, tactile channels—a practice known as "protactile". These practices are leading to an emergent grammatical system that has yet to be acquired by any DeafBlind children. This project introduces a cohort of DeafBlind children to skilled protactile signers who will be employing novel educational materials and uniquely designed technology to facilitate language acquisition. This learning environment offers a rare opportunity to analyze the effects of the natural acquisition process as the language is transmitted from DeafBlind adult users of protactile language, who knew American Sign Language before protactile language, to DeafBlind children, who are acquiring protactile language as a first language. It is predicted that DeafBlind children will follow the general course of first language acquisition and will develop core lexical items earlier than verbs with componential morphology, thereby diverging from the path that adult signers have taken, creating forms with componential morphology before creating core lexical items. We also predict that the lexical forms created by children will adhere to protactile phonological principles more broadly than the forms created by adult protactile signers, who rely on protactile phonological principles only in a much more restricted set of signs. If confirmed, the findings will demonstrate that DeafBlind children are capable of acquiring and expanding language under conditions of social distancing, and it will shed light, for the first time, on how language at the phonological level is optimized to the tactile modality as that process unfolds from adult to child.