Sign systems as substitutes for natural language



This analytical article shows that intellectual development is impossible without bearing on sign system, that is, on natural language in normal children. But there are ways of substituting natural language with other sign systems, which can provide communication and intellectual development in children with hearing and speech impairments. Conversational sign language is a self-improving sign system that can substitute natural language under certain circumstances. Other alternative and augmentative communication systems are being developed for children with other impairments (autism, alalia, etc.). The article critically reviews one of such systems, Bliss. However, most of the existing systems are only 'small bridges' that should, in the future, help speechless children to communicate using natural language. The authors describe the possible ways of developing such systems that would substitute natural language on early stages of speech development in children with different impairments.

General Information

Keywords: sign systems, natural language, sign language, alternative communication, the deaf, autism, alalia

Journal rubric: Discussions and Discourses

Article type: scientific article

For citation: Braudo T.E., Frumkina R.M. Sign systems as substitutes for natural language. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2006. Vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 28–37. (In Russ., аbstr. in Engl.)

Full text

Our knowledge is based on opportunities to operate with signs and sign systems. The basic and universal sign system providing development of intelligence of the person and processes of cognition is a natural language. From birth, genetically, the person has an opportunity to master language. All development of the child, his/her way of transformation from biological being into social being is provided with mastering by natural language in dialogue with other people. The certain part of children is born with such psychophysiological infringements which deprive the normal opportunity of natural language mastering for the child They are children who is deaf from birth and became deaf at early age, visually impaired and hard of hearing, autistic etc. If in relation to these children the measures are not undertaken, which allow providing them with access to mastering natural language or other sign system anyhow functionally replacing natural language these children are deprived of perspective of some adequate intellectual development. This statement is not new. But, unfortunately, we have either intuitive experience of teachers, bringing up these children, or abstract models of the linguists deprived of explanatory force. Process of mastering the native language as consecutive mastering sign operations in essence was not studied, particularly how duly development of speech provides sign support for fundamental intellectual operations. We shall emphasize, that practitioners collected huge amount of observations concerning processes of becoming of children’s intelligence. But there is no advanced theory, which, for example, could be called “the general theory of sign support of reception and fastening of knowledge“. In the article we examined some problems connected to it. To develop normally child’s intelligence it is needed that the language develops in time. . An example of the sign system replacing natural language, can serve gesture language which help deaf persons to communicate (colloquial gesture language) This language develops only in collective of deaf persons. The way natural to normal sign mediating is closed for the deaf child who has not dialogue in collective. Only when the deaf child growing in family of hearing parents gets in special institution — for example, in a kindergarten for deaf children, he begins learning to speak. Being included in common process of the communications (dialogue with deaf persons, evolved in family of deaf persons), the deaf child seizes gesture language as sign system, that mediates all cognitive processes. Further it is logically to use this “native” for deaf children colloquial gesture language for the pedagogical purposes as the sign system replacing natural language. Opposite to a state of affairs in the environment of deaf persons, “nonspeaking” children at whom speech is not developed for other reasons, appear socially and psychologically lonely (children with alalia and autism). Opposite to children with alalia, which would like to communicate and speak, but cannot speak; autistic children initially have deaf child no need for dialogue and do not speak for this reason. The most actual appears to be the problem of the most primitive communications due to which the child could be understood by somebody else, except for mother who “understands” the child at a level of support of his initial needs. If to comprehend a problem of “minimally necessary” communications theoretically it looks as the following: for contact to the “nonspeaking” child it is necessary to search for the special sign system, which is carrying out functions, similar to functions of natural language. This sign system should be introduced from the outside, i.e. should be invented. Following this general purpose, the western teachers, since 1960th, began to develop systems of so-called “supporting alternative communications” (augmentative and alternative communication). It is offered to replace the not generated speech by the communication with the help of images Instead of attempts to form child’s speech or to liquidate the individual speech defects. It is supposed, that the set of images basically can be used as the sign system providing certain practical needs at training and socialization of the “nonspeaking” child. Such artificial system should provide the effective communication. The opportunity of use of the system based on images, will allow “to remove (take off”) the direct dependence of prospects of child’s intellectual opportunities development on his/her capability to master speech. In any social situation the “nonspeaking” child appears sharply estranged from other persons who first of all are shocked by his/her inarticulate “speech” stream and also with impossibility of any social contact with him. As a result there is quite explained sensation, that replacement of speech with a picture can smooth this shock and avoid a communicative failure. Some basic defects of such systems are specified in given article. Natural language is a system, which carries out functions of sign support of various intellectual operations, including base operations of generalization and abstraction. Without mastering these operations the high-grade intelligence cannot be developed. But not all operations are accessible to children and not all means offered by the adult, the child can use. For example, in works of mathematician A.K.Zvonkina’s the process of mastering operations with figures at children of 5-6 years old is described. It is shown, that at classification of various subjects children do not use badges offered by the teacher. It confirms again, what natural language serves as strong support for formation of abstract concepts. Therefore the delays and infringements of development of natural language irrespective of their genesis inevitably conduct to impairment in development of intelligence. The systems replacing natural language, based on pictograms, give at disposal of the “nonspeaking” child the pictures of a different level of abstractiveness. But they do not create the preconditions for developing of abstraction operations as transition from the represented objects to their essential attributes and further to a class, or from the image of characters to abstract representation about process of action as such. For example the “Bliss” system most evidently expresses the basic tendencies in search of designing of adequate means, replacing natural language in concrete conditions of correctional pedagogics. The symbols used in “Bliss” are of planimetric plottings similar to usual typographical alphabetic letters and their combinations (brackets, an asterisk, a sign “sharp”, signs for logic and mathematical operations etc.), geometrical figures. Symbols of “Bliss” are not focused on iconicity. Opposite to “Bliss”, pictographic images do not exist as the certain completed system with certain set of badges defined beforehand and postulated syntax. Both approaches are directed on replacing of words of natural languages with images, thus already enough high level of intelligence development and sign consciousness is supposed. Let’s return to a situation when mastering natural language represents the desired, but quite often-difficult purpose to achieve. Absence at the “nonspeaking” child of opportunities to communicate on the base of natural language should not doom him to social isolation. Authors count possible to create the new system replacing natural language. It can serve as sign support of thinking development for so-called “nonspeaking” children and should serve as the bridge, which further allows “nonspeaking” children to move up to the communication with use of natural language. In the offered system replacing natural language, actions can be entered with the help of gestures, objects of action — with the help of pictograms or photos, some relations — also with the help of photos, but the properties of subjects (by analogy to Maria Montessori’s works) — through the skilled dealing with subjects (touching the appropriate surfaces, hearing of sounds etc.). It is necessary to realize this approach as convenient and standardized material objects — tables and designs. The complex object created in this way will be a material fundament of the system, which allows to organize the process of signification at training of “nonspeaking” child at the first stages in rather standard way. Steadfast fixing of stages of mastering significating operations during training of the “nonspeaking” child allows us to observe ontogeny process, forcedly stretched in time and forcedly broken on rather artificial stages. We cannot make straightened speculations about the norm, on the base of our observations in sphere of pathology. But according to a principle “the latent in norm is obvious in a pathology“, the analysis of transitions from understanding of gesture to understanding of its image, from the pictogram to a word and back, gives us super valuable material. We hope that in this way we can fill with the real content the idea of operations with signs and of their role in development of speech and intelligence.


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Information About the Authors

Tatyana E. Braudo, Vice-principle at the Moscow boarding school #65 for deaf children, Moscow, Russia

Rebecca M. Frumkina, Doctor of Philosophy, Professor, Senior researcherat the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Education, Moscow, Russia



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