Fingerspelled and Printed Words are Recoded into a Speech-based Code for Short-term Memory

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We conducted three immediate serial recall experiments that manipulated type of stimulus presentation (printed or fingerspelled words) and word similarity (speech-based or manual). Matched deaf American Sign Language signers and hearing non-signers participated (mean reading age = 14–15 years). Speech-based similarity effects were found for both stimulus types indicating that deaf signers recoded both printed and fingerspelled words into a speech-based phonological code. A manual similarity effect was not observed for printed words indicating that print was not recoded into fingerspelling (FS). A manual similarity effect was observed for fingerspelled words when similarity was based on joint angles rather than on handshape compactness. However, a follow-up experiment suggested that the manual similarity effect was due to perceptual confusion at encoding. Overall, these findings suggest that FS is strongly linked to English phonology for deaf adult signers who are relatively skilled readers. This link between fingerspelled words and English phonology allows for the use of a more efficient speech-based code for retaining fingerspelled words in short-term memory and may strengthen the representation of English vocabulary.


This article was originally published in Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, volume 22, issue 1, in 2016.

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