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Research examines activation of ASL lexicon through English words

Morford and Wilkenson have preliminary results to a study indicating that the presentation of English words can activate the ASL lexicon in deaf readers. Understanding these cross-linguistic and cross-modality relationships may provide clues to how better to teach English to deaf students.

Professor Jill Morford and doctoral student Erin Wilkinson at the University of New Mexico, involved with the NSF funded Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2), discovered that English words activate American Sign Language (ASL) translation equivalents in deaf bilinguals with varying levels of English proficiency. This research is ground breaking because ASL signs share only semantics (information about meaning), not phonology (sound based information) or orthography (how the words are written), with English words. Historically it has been difficult to know what an ASL/English bilingual did when learning new signs or words. Morford and her colleagues showed that cross-language activation occurs across modality—between a visual language (ASL) and an auditory language (English), providing preliminary evidence that ASL translation equivalents may aid developing Deaf readers who are ASL-dominant to learn English. Deaf readers typically learn English after print exposure instead of prior to print exposure. Thus, mapping English word forms to ASL signs may be one path to achieving literacy. VL2 is a multi-site Center with headquarters at Gallaudet University.