Language Development and Number Cognition

Deaf children rarely experience typical language exposure in terms of quality and timing; that is, they often receive linguistic input that is less complete at a later point in developmental time compared with their normally hearing peers. We hypothesize that a delay in the acquisition of number words due to insufficient access to language input in may negatively affect deaf children’s numerical cognition (Spaepen, Coppola, et al., 2011), which might compromise basic mathematical abilities (e.g., counting), as well as more advanced mathematical concepts (e.g., word problems). Our Study of Language and Math project (SLAM) investigates the effect of deaf children’s number language on their ability to count, estimate quantities, and understand foundational mathematical principles. The project is supported by an NSF CAREER Award.

Participants: Marie Coppola, Jessica Contreras, Deanna Gagne
Collaborators: Anna ShustermanElizabet SpaepenMolly FlahertyElizabeth SpelkeSusan Goldin-MeadowSusan Carey


Spaepen, E., Coppola, M., Flaherty, M., Spelke, E., Goldin-Meadow, S. (2013). Generating a lexicon without a language model: Do words for number count? Journal of Memory and Language, 69(4), 496-505.

Coppola, M., Spaepen, E., Goldin-Meadow, S. (2013). Communicating about quantity without a language model: Number devices in homesign grammar.  Cognitive Psychology, 67, 1-25.

Spaepen, E., Coppola, M., Spelke, E., Carey, S., and Goldin-Meadow, S. (2011). Number without a language model. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(8): 3163-3168.


Emergence of Phonology

This project is part of a larger collaboration with Diane Brentari and colleagues in which we examine whether stable phonological systems exist in both homesign and Nicaraguan Sign Language. In sign languages, phonological elements are things like handshape, movement, and location of signs. Ongoing work is focused on examining the degree to which homesigners are consistent in their use of particular handshapes to describe the same object, and examining the dimensions on which their productions vary when they are not consistent.

Participants: Marie Coppola
Collaborators: Diane Brentari, Pyeong Whan Cho, Ann SenghasSusan Goldin-Meadow,  Laura Horton, Lauren Applebaum, Ashley Jung, Laura Mazzoni


Brentari, D., M. Coppola, P. W. Cho, and A. Senghas. (2017) Handshape complexity as a precursor to phonology: Variation, emergence, and acquisition. Language Acquisition, 1-24. DOI:10.1080/10489223.2016.1187614

Horton, L., Goldin-Meadow, S., Coppola, M., Senghas, A., and D. Brentari. (2015). Forging a morphological system out of two dimensions: Agentivity and number. Open Linguistics, 1(1), 596–613. doi: 10.1515/opli-2015-0021.

Goldin-Meadow, S., Brentari, D., Coppola, M., Horton, L., and A. Senghas. (2015). Watching language grow in the manual modality: How the hand can distinguish between nouns and verbs. Cognition, 136, 381-395. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.11.029

Coppola, M. and D. Brentari. (2014). Longitudinal evidence for the emergence of phonological properties in a homesigner. Invited submission to special issue of Frontiers in Language Sciences: Language by mouth and hand.

Applebaum, L., Coppola, M., Goldin-Meadow, S. (2014). Prosody in a communication system developed without a language model. Sign Language & Linguistics. 17(2), 181-212.

Brentari, D., Coppola, M., Jung, A. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2013). Acquiring word class distinctions in American Sign Language: Evidence from handshape. Language Learning & Development, 9(2), 130-150.

Brentari, D., Coppola, M., Mazzoni, L., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2012). When does a system become phonological? Handshape production in gesturers, signers, and homesigners. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 30(1): 1-31.

Language Input and Theory of Mind Development

Children raised in typical environments, where they receive complete linguistic input from their caretakers, achieve adult-like Theory of Mind abilities by about 4 years old. Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability to understand that people have differing beliefs about the world (that may be true or false), and that these beliefs may affect their decisions. ToM development has been argued to have its roots in language development; but most populations investigated often have other cognitive impairments (i.e. children with Autism Spectrum Disorders) in addition to linguistic impairments. This study offers to disentangle the effects of cognition from language by looking at homesigners, who are traditionally thought of as having complete cognitive faculties, but who have never been exposed to complete language input.

Participants: Deanna Gagne, Marie Coppola


Gagne, D., and Coppola, M. (under review). Visible social interactions do not support theory of mind development in the absence of linguistic input: Evidence from deaf adult homesigners.

Emergence of Lexicon

In this project, we examine (1) how the forms of words become consistent within and among users of a communication system, and (2) how different meanings acquire forms that contrast with one another. Questions include: how do patterns of interaction among language users influence conventionalization at the group level, and stabilization of a lexicon at the individual level? Can we appeal to differences in communicative pressure among users to explain differences in users’ differentiation of forms for different meanings? In other words, can we make the case that people who differentiate forms for different meanings to a greater degree do so because they are under greater pressure to use the system and make themselves clear? This project involves fieldwork to document the lexicons of Nicaraguan homesigners and their families, and, with Charles Yang, computational modeling of the conventionalization process.

Participants: Russell Richie, Marie Coppola, Julia Fanghella Adell
Collaborators: Charles Yang


Carrigan E. and M. Coppola. (2016). Interaction alone cannot support the emergence of a spatial agreement system in a paired interaction context. In S. Roberts & G. Mills (Eds.) In The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11), Language Adapts to Interaction Workshop.

Rissman, L., L. Horton, M. Flaherty, D. Brentari, S. Goldin-Meadow, A. Senghas, and M. Coppola. (2016). Strategies in gesture and sign for demoting an agent: Effects of language community and input. In The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11).

Richie, R., Coppola, M., and Yang, C. (2014). Emergence of Natural Language Lexicons: Empirical and Modeling Evidence from Homesign and Nicaraguan Sign Language. Proceedings of the 38th Boston University Conference in Language Development.

Richie, R., Yang, C., and Coppola, M. (2014). Modeling the emergence of lexicons in homesign systems. Topics in Cognitive Science, 6(1), 183-195.

Brentari D., Coppola M. (2012). What sign language creation teaches us about language. WIREs Cognitive Science,  doi: 10.1002/wcs.1212

Coppola, M. and Senghas, A. (2010). The emergence of deixis in Nicaraguan signing. In D. Brentari (Ed.) Sign Languages: A Cambridge Language Survey. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Coppola, M., & So., W. C. (2006). The seeds of spatial grammar: Spatial modulation and coreference in homesigning and hearing adults. In D. Bamman, T. Magnitskaia, & C. Zaller (Eds.) Proceedings of the 30th Boston University Conference on Language Development, (pp. 119-130). Boston: Cascadilla Press.

Coppola, M. and Newport, E. L. (2005). Grammatical Subjects in home sign: Abstract linguistic structure in adult primary gesture systems without linguistic input. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(52), 19249-19253.

Coppola, M., and So, W. C. (2005). Abstract and Object-Anchored Deixis: Pointing and spatial layout in adult homesign systems in Nicaragua. In A. Brugos, M. R. Clark-Cotton, and S. Ha, (Eds.), Proceedings of the 29th Boston University Conference on Language Development, (pp. 144-155). Boston: Cascadilla Press.

So, W.C., Coppola, M., Licciardello, V., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005)..pdf The seeds of spatial grammar in the manual modality. Cognitive Science, 29, 23-37.

Coppola, M. (2002). The emergence of the grammatical category of Subject in home sign: Evidence from family-based gesture systems in Nicaragua. PhD. Dissertation, Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.

Senghas, A., & Coppola, M. (2001). Children creating language: How Nicaraguan Sign Language acquired a spatial grammar. Psychological Science, 12(4), 323-328.

Senghas, A., Coppola, M., Newport, E., Supalla, T. (1997). Argument structure in Nicaraguan Sign Language: The emergence of grammatical devices. Proceedings of the Boston University Conference on Language Development, 21: 550-561. Boston: Cascadilla Press.

Homesign Comprehension

In this project we evaluate how well homesigners’ communication partners (family members and friends) understand homesign utterances. We film a homesigner describing simple events (like “the man kissed the woman”), and then show the videotaped descriptions to that homesigner’s communication partners. Assessing the degree to which a particular communication partner understands homesign can tell us how likely that communication partner was to have contributed significantly to the development of the homesign system. Data analysis thus far has shown that homesigners’ mothers comprehend homesign descriptions poorly, suggesting that mothers are not the primary driving force in the development of the systems.

Participants: Emily Carrigan, Marie Coppola


Carrigan, E. M., & Coppola, M. (2017). Successful communication does not drive language development: Evidence from adult homesign. Cognition158, 10-27.

Carrigan, E. & Coppola, M. (2012). Mothers do not drive structure in adult homesign systems:Evidence from comprehension.In N. Miyake, D. Peebles, & R. P. Cooper, (Eds.), Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1398-1403). Sapporo, Japan: Cognitive Science Society.

Emergence of Narrative

It has been shown cross-linguistically that while language (i.e. lexicon, syntax, etc.) develops early in life, the ability to produce a narrative both cohesive (using appropriate linguistic elements to show relationships across clauses, i.e. anaphor) and coherent (including all relevant information) does not appear to be adult-like until about 9 years old (Karmiloff-Smith, 1985, Morgan & Woll 2003). In this study, we compare the narratives of five groups of deaf signers: Homesigners, who have no exposure to any formal signed language but have created their own idiosyncratic means of communication; three cohorts of the currently evolving Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) community (cohorts 1, 2, and 3, representing the first three stages in the language’s development); and signers of two established sign languages; Dutch Sign Language (NGT) and American Sign Language (ASL). We hypothesize that although the Homesigners have shown the beginnings of language (i.e. sentence structure and basic lexical items), the lack of a linguistic community has negatively impacted their ability to tell coherent, cohesive narratives. Along these lines, we also hypothesize that we should be able to linearly track the development of these abilities across the NSL cohorts, showing that as the language develops across time, the later cohorts produce more cohesive and coherent narratives.

Participants: Marie Coppola, Deanna Gange, Eli Miranda


Jenkins, T., Coehlo, C., Coppola, M. (accepted). Effects of gesture restriction on quality of narrative discourse. Gesture.