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Hearing management

Updated 04 December 2017

Sign language users read words and see signs simultaneously

People fluent in sign language may simultaneously keep words and signs in their minds as they read, according to an international team of researchers.

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People fluent in sign language may simultaneously keep words and signs in their minds as they read, according to an international team of researchers.

In an experiment, 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, according to Judith Kroll, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Linguistics and Women's Studies, Penn State. 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.

"If a sign language user is a bilingual juggler they might not respond to the connections between the signs and words in a conscious way," said Kroll, who serves as the director of Penn State's Centre for Language Science. "But we can design experiments to measure the unconscious response."

The study

The study shows that sign language users are similar to other bilinguals, said Kroll, who also worked with Jill Morford, professor, University of New Mexico; Erin Wilkinson, assistant professor, University of Manitoba; Agnes Villwock, student, University of Hamburg; and Pilar Pinar, associate professor, Gallaudet University.

"This reflects previous research on bilinguals that shows both languages are active, even when they're reading or speaking one language," Kroll said.

According to Morford, who was the lead author for the study, the research also represents the growing acceptance among the scientific community that sign language is a real language.

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

The findings

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," said 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." (EurekAlert/March 2011)

 

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Dr Kara Hoffman graduated from UCT in 2004, thereafter she completed her year of community service in Durban. In 2010 she completed her Masters Degree in Paediatric Aural Rehabilitation from UKZN. In 2016, she became a Doctor of Audiology through the University of Arizona (ATSU). Dr Hoffman and her partner Lauren Thompson opened a fully diagnostic audiology practice called Thompson & Hoffman Audiology Inc. In 2011 with world-class technology and equipment to be able to offer the broad public all hearing-related services including hearing testing for adults and babies, vestibular (balance) assessments and rehabilitation, industrial audiology, hearing devices, central auditory processing assessments for school-aged children, school screening, neonatal hearing screening programmes at Alberlito and Parklands Hospital, cochlear implants and other implantable devices, medicolegal assessments and advanced electroacoustic assessments of hearing. Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. are based at Alberlito Hospital in Ballito, St Augustines Hospital in Durban and at 345 Essenwood Road, Musgrave. The practices are all wheelchair friendly. There are three audiologists that practice from Thompson & Hoffman – including Dr Kara Hoffman, Lauren Thompson & Minette Lister. The practice boasts professional, highly qualified, and extensive diagnostic services where all your hearing healthcare needs can be met. The additional licensing in vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, paediatric rehabilitation and cochlear implantation places this practice in one of the top specialist audiological positions in South Africa, with a wealth of experience in all clinical areas of audiology and is a very well respected and sought-after practice.

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