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Wilkinson, Erin L.

Adjunct Professor, Linguistics


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Research Description

signed language linguistics, cognitive-functional linguistics, language typology, construction grammar, iconicity, gesture

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Cross-language activation during sentence comprehension in deaf bilinguals

Question: Does knowledge of a signed language influence comprehension of written sentences through cross-language activation in deaf bilinguals?

Background: Extensive research on spoken language bilinguals indicates that bilinguals do not �switch off� the language not in use, even when it might be beneficial to do so (Van Hell & Dijkstra, 2002). VL2 investigators recently found evidence that signs are active during print word comprehension for ASL-English (Morford et al., 2011) and DGS-German (Rathmann et al., 2011) deaf bilinguals. These results indicate that cross-language activation occurs even in the absence of phonologically or orthographically similar forms in the two languages (e.g., cognates and homographs). Cross-language activation in deaf bilinguals may occur post-lexically rather than re-lexically given the lack of cognates and homographs. Ongoing investigation is exploring this question through a study of the time course of cross-language activation. We propose this study to clarify the effects of semantic constraints on cross-language activation by investigating whether effects persist in sentential contexts.

Hypothesis: The null hypothesis is that sign language translation equivalents of print words will not affect reading times for L2 target words in sentential contexts.

Methods: We will examine self-paced reading (moving window) latencies acquired in 30 deaf ASL-English bilinguals, 30 hearing L2 English controls, and 30 hearing monolingual controls. Participants read 80 sentences across 4 conditions: Baseline, Control, Experimental and Filler. Experimental and control sentences are both semantically anomalous, but the experimental sentences are interpretable if a phonological neighbor of the ASL translation equivalent of the English target word is substituted, e.g., for the following sentences, the ASL sign fireworks is a phonological neighbor of the ASL sign popcorn:

Baseline: A healthy snack alterative to chips is popcorn or nuts.

Control: The children were playing kickball on the popcorn at school.

Experimental: After our Fourth of July picnic, we enjoyed watching the popcorn display.

If deaf bilinguals activate signs during sentence processing, we predict longer reading latencies in the Experimental than the Control condition. However, if signs are not activated, then reading latencies in both the Experimental and Control conditions should be longer than in the Baseline condition, but they should not differ.

Significance: Sign language proficiency accounted for 68% of the variability in reading comprehension for deaf college students (Freel et al. 2010). Our study elucidates a possible mechanism by which sign language proficiency may influence reading performance.

Partners NSF Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2)
Funding Agencies National Science Foundation
Location Washington, D.C.
Countries USA, Manitoba
Regions New Mexico, Pennsyvlina, Washington, D.C., Winnipeg
Dates 2012 - 2014

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