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About Our Project

Dr. Rabia Ergin and her research team have been visiting the village, where CTSL was born, and conduct field studies with native CTSL users every summer since 2013. The field work we carry out annually is one of the pillars of our current project, which is currently funded by TÜBİTAK BİDEB-2232 International Fellowship for Outstanding Researchers granted to Dr. Rabia Ergin. We visit and collect data in various experiments, participated by not only CTSL signers but by the home signers, TID signers and family sign language users we present here. In our experiments, the main goal is to understand which word orders our participants are inclined to use while describing events they watch. To this end, we ask our participants to watch a variety of short clips and describe the event that have seen in their sign language. We compare our findings from home sign, family sign languages, village sign languages and Turkish Sign Language (a more established language) with one another in order to gain insight into the effects of community size and structure in the development of systematic word order patterns. 

Dr Rabia Ergin with a native CTSL user

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Dr Rabia Ergin with a native CTSL user

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In addition to investigating emergence of word order patterns, we explore the interaction between language development and the development of mental processes of language users. Languages like CTSL not only provide us with a window into the initial stages of a natural language, but also an opportunity to investigate how going through a different type of languagedevelopment process affects individual’s mental processes. For instance, individuals using a language like CTSL, which is still evolving, might not know or understand verbs referring to the mental processes of other individuals such as "know" or "think". One of our experiments investigate how lack of such “mental” words might affect the predictions of deaf individuals while they make sense of others' mental processes in a series of experiments exhibited in the photographs below.

Other pillars of our project consist of collecting data from 1) hearing native Turkish speakers with no exposure or knowledge of any sign language (first set of images below), and 2) deaf native Turkish Sign Language signers (second set of images below). By doing so, we are able to demonstrate the developmental trajectory of emerging sign languages in comparison with spontaneously produced gestures of hearing individuals and the productions of signers using an established sign language.

 

When Turkish speakers without any previous exposure to a signed system are asked to describe short events using only gestures and mimics, some of them freeze! Many others improvise using unsystematic and long strings of gestures. Therefore, the responses we record from these participants clearly differ from those participants using sign languages. We compare our findings from emerging sign languages to those of gesture productions of Turkish speakers and Turkish Sign Language users. The range from a national sign language with an enriched structural maturity to improvised gestures allow us to detect the features of newly emerging languages, which frequently fall between the two polar points, and show us the developmental trajectory of a natural human communication system.

Prior to our fieldwork for collecting data from emerging sign languages, we first conducted online experiments with a group of Turkish speakers with no previous experience with sign languages (as shown in the set of images above) and with another group of deaf Turkish Sign Language users (as shown in the set of images below). All participants watched the same set of short video clips on their own computer screen and responded through their webcams because of Covid-19 regulations.

In our project, an additional reason for investigating different sign languages with this method is to understand the effect of community size and the social networking between the individuals of a community on the emergence and evolution of language. For instance, CTSL is a village sign language and the users of this language share a lot of common experience. This, of course, is reflected in the language by shortening or simplifying of certain linguistic elements since they possess meaning from a shared past. Therefore, they make use of these types of pragmatic-semantic resources instead of grammar. Our method allows us to observe that groups which share a lot with each other use simpler linguistic structure by relying more on the context they share rather than grammar information. Additionally, the use of a certain language by individuals who do not share any common ground, such as native TID signers, may result in the appearance of linguistic elements more particularly and clearly, meaning their language may rely more on the grammatical information because they are not based on a common background knowledge. These are all the questions we are looking for answering in this project.