More proof signers think like bilinguals

PENN STATE (US) — A person fluent in sign language processes both words and signs while reading, juggling both like a bilingual.

An international research team found that deaf readers were quicker and more accurate in determining the meaningful relationship between English word pairs when the word pairs were matched with similar signs. The slightly better reaction time and improved accuracy rate indicates that the readers are able to juggle both English and sign language at the same time.

“This reflects previous research on bilinguals that shows both languages are active even when they’re reading or speaking one language,” says Judith Kroll, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Penn State.

The findings represent the growing acceptance among the scientific community that sign language is a real language, says lead author Jill Morford, a professor at the University of New Mexico.

“This work is critical to help make the science of studying American Sign Language every bit as rigorous as the study of other languages,” adds Morford.

The researchers, who released their findings in a recent issue of Cognition, tested 19 deaf adults who were fluent in American Sign Language as they decided whether pairs of English words were related or unrelated in meaning.

A total of 120 word pairs was divided into two groups of 60 word pairs that had either related or unrelated meanings. Of the related pairs, such as bird-duck, 14 also had similar signs while 16 of the unrelated word pairs had similar signs. In ASL, signs are considered related if they have similar hand shapes, locations, movements or orientations. The researchers added a number of randomly assigned word pairs to complete the test.

When the participants encountered word pairs and signs that were related, the reaction time was significantly faster and more accurate than the reaction of a control group made up of 15 bilingual speakers who spoke English as a second language.

When the word pairs were matched with unrelated signs, the participants’ reaction time was slower and less accurate.

“You see interference,” says Kroll. “The reaction isn’t slowed down enough to cause issues in the day-to-day usage of the language, but there’s a momentary gap in processing that indicates that the bilingual is not processing information like monolinguals.”

The research—which included collaborators from the University of Manitoba, University of Hamburg, and Gallaudet University—was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

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