Strategic Focus Areas

SFA 2: Language Development & Bilingualism

The goal of this SFA is to understand the principles and organization of linguistic competencies developed through the visual modality. (Erin Wilkinson, Leader)

Current conceptions of the nature of human language have been revolutionized by the discovery that signed languages, despite their radically different forms and organization relative to spoken languages, are nevertheless acquired in a modality-independent manner from the earliest stages of babbling (Petitto & Marentette, 1991; Petitto, 2000; Petitto & Holowka et al. 2001,2004 (2001 Nature, 2004 Cognition); Petitto & Katerelos et al., 2001; Petitto & Kovelman, 2003; Petitto, 2005) to the most advanced stages of grammatical processing when exposure to the language begins from birth (Newport & Meier, 1985; Petitto, 2000; Petitto & Zatorre et al.2000; Petitto & Zatorre et al., 2003; Petitto & Baker et al., 2005; Petitto & Kovelman et al., 2009). The fundamental differences between signed and spoken languages, and the visual processing differences in deaf and hearing learners, make the study of visual language acquisition a rich area for discovery. Much of the prior language acquisition research on deaf individuals focused either solely on signed language acquisition (Newport & Meier, 1985), or on the development of reading in the deaf population (Musselman, 2000). In both cases, language use has been addressed largely from a monolingual perspective. However, deaf language learners are bilingual learners. By approaching these issues from a bilingual perspective (Grosjean, 1998, 2010). VL2’s research is transformative of our understanding of language processing and use in the deaf population, as well as increasing our understanding of bilingualism in general.  Questions of bilingual language development and reading, the impact of early bilingual exposure on higher cognitive processing, and the optimal ways to promote bilingual language learning and reading, are at the heart of our inquiry.

Our studies about deaf bilinguals provide unique insights into the above questions. Some of the earliest studies completed in the Center investigated whether signs are activated during print word recognition in “sign-print” bilinguals (Kubuş, Villwock, Morford, Rathmann, in press; Morford et al., 2011; Morford et al., in press). These studies of deaf adults involved the remarkable case of a new kind of bilingual, a sign-print bilingual, whereupon deaf individuals had their first language exposure to ASL and gained access to their other language (English) through the printed word. This foundational work led to the surprising discovery that visual sign phonology is implicated not only in sign language processing but also in recognition of English print when reading words.

However, the role of visual sign phonology in young deaf children remains open as we do not yet know whether activation of sign parameters during reading emerges only after reading proficiency is achieved, or whether sign phonology is instrumental in the development of reading skill. This will be the focus of SFA 2 in Years 8-9, with these questions being specifically studied.

Studies for SFA 2

Study 4
Study 4
Do young deaf bilingual-bimodal readers access ASL forms while reading English words? (Erin Wilkinson, PI)
Study 5
Study 5
Speed of visual sign language processing, and visual sign phonological awareness processing, in young deaf typically and atypically-developing bilingual-bimodal readers. (David Quinto-Pozos, PI)

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