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Modules & topics

Hello and welcome to this massive open online course (MOOC) on Sign Language Structure, Learning, and Change!

Dr. Ted Supalla is the professor of the course, and all lectures are given in American Sign Language (ASL). Each lecture is captioned and voiced over in English so that all students will have access to the content. 

We expect that a variety of students will take the course, running the gamut from those who are native sign language users to those who are interested in learning about different languages of the world. We have designed the course so that students of diverse perspectives can all participate in this journey.

The course is organized into four modules, which should take you approximately four weeks to complete at the rate of one module per week.  A single, week-long module consists of video lectures with supplementary units that include hands-on homework exercises and links to external resources. The topics covered in each module are described in detail below.


The ultimate aim of the course is to achieve a better understanding and appreciation of ASL. The course covers its structure, learning and change in these four ways:

    1. Revealing the essence of chereology
    2. Synergy of cognitive & linguistic principles
    3. Synergy of innovation and visual analogy
    4. Synergy with language universals

Module 1: Emergence and evolution of sign language

Dr. Ted Supalla discusses the history of ideas regarding the emergence and evolution of sign language and the ongoing dispute on the linguistic status of ASL and its literary legacy.  Some key questions we will cover include:

  • Where does ASL come from?
  • How has knowledge of ASL grammar been sustained throughout its history?
  • What makes ASL different from other signed languages around the world?
  • What kind of literary legacy has been passed on across generations of ASL signers?
  • How do signers tweak the rules of the language for creative expression?

Module 2: Factors contributing to natural structure

Throughout Module 2, Professor Supalla discusses syntax and its interface with the lexicon of ASL. Some key questions we will explore include:

  • How is chereology in sign language equivalent to phonology in spoken language?
  • How is the lexicon varied?
  • What syntactic constraints exist in ASL?
  • What kind of prosody (movement, space, and facial expressions) is required for combining signs into sentences?
  • How do syntax (word order and inflection) and prosody interact?

Module 3: Factors contributing to natural learning

In Module 3, we will revisit the efforts to develop a manual system that emulates spoken English.  We will also look at the ongoing debate over the role of visual analogy and depiction in shaping the grammar of ASL as well as the growing mind of a child signer.

To resolve the classic question of how a visual language best suits the human mind, we offer a rationale for understanding morphological typology within ASL as a gradient (on a continuum). We then demonstrate how this gradience allows us to study the correlation between brain activation shown in the adult signer and the morphological continuum.  

In short, this module introduces the idea of treating ASL as a classifier predicate language with an inherent ability to support a wide typological range of morphological processes. 

Key questions we will explore include:

  • What is a classifier predicate language?
  • What is morphological typology and gradience?
  • How does a child learn a visual language like ASL?  
  • Do signers and non-signers process natural gesture in the same way? 

Module 4: Factors contributing to natural change

In the last module, we will consider how the language universals would determine the way gesture would change into sign language.  

Some key questions we will explore include:

  • What did syntax and morphology in early ASL look like?
  • What did the scholars of 19th century ASL know about ASL grammar?
  • How can we visualize what ASL looked like at its inception?
  • What can we learn from looking at natural gesture to help us with this visualization?
  • How much influence does consistent contact with the English language impose onto the grammar of ASL?

To visualize how ASL has emerged and evolved throughout its history, we will review seminal fieldwork on young sign languages and then revisit the early days of ASL.  With further data from the Historical Sign Language Database (HSLDB), we are able to reconstruct how early ASL evolved into modern ASL.