Journal of Linguistics

Language against the odds: the learning of British Sign Language by a polyglot savant 1

a1 University College London
a2 University of Cambridge and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
a3 City University, London


In this paper we report on our attempt to teach the polyglot savant Christopher (‘C’ hereinafter) British Sign Language (BSL). BSL presents C with a novel challenge in the use of hand-eye coordination, while at the same time offering him the linguistic ingredients he is obsessed with. Despite his deficits in key areas of intellectual ability, communication skills and visuo-spatial cognition, C has developed a working knowledge of BSL through processes of circumvention, adaptation and invention. As a form of control, we taught BSL to a comparator group of talented second-language learners. We do not discuss this comparison in depth here (see Morgan et al. in preparation) but refer to some of the test scores as a guide to how normal a sign learner C is.

Results from formal tests of C's linguistic knowledge, and observational study of his developing communicative ability in BSL, are analysed and described. These results illuminate the structure and use of BSL, highlighting the important role of visuo-spatial cognition in its acquisition and manipulation.

Our findings support the assumption that the organisation of knowledge of language is largely modality independent, whereas the exploitation of specific grammatical devices is language and modality dependent. C has attained a certain level of linguistic competence in BSL, and his performance in the language is largely in conformity with his previously established mixed profile of abilities and disabilities.

(Received June 23 2000)
(Revised May 18 2001)

c1 Department of Language and Communication Science, City University, London, Northampton Sq. London EC1 V0HB, U.K. E-mail:


1 Aspects of this research have been presented at the Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research (TISLR) conference at Gallaudet University (July 1998); at the Texas Linguistics Society Conference at the University of Texas at Austin (February 2000); at the Linguistics Association of Great Britain meeting at University College London (April 2000); and at the TISLR conference at the University of Amsterdam (July 2000). We are indebted to the audiences at all these venues, to Annabel Cormack, and to two anonymous JL referees for their contribution. We are particularly grateful to Frances Elton and Ann Sturdy for their invaluable help with the project. We would also like to express our thanks to the Leverhulme Trust who, under grant F.134AS, have supported our work on Christopher for a number of years, and to John Carlile for helping to make it possible. Our deepest debt is to Christopher himself and to his family, who have been unstinting in their support and cooperation.