Vol. 17, No. 3
What Age of Acquisition Effects Reveal about the Nature of Phonological Processing
1Department of Linguistics, University of California, San Diego; 2School of Communication Sciences & Disorders, McGill University
Evidence that signers use phonological structure during sign recognition has been difficult to obtain. By carefully controlling age of acquisition of American Sign Language (ASL), we demonstrate here the psychological reality of phonological structure during sign recognition. Sixty-four signers, who were born deaf and varied in initial age of ASL acquisition from birth to 13 years, performed a primed lexical decision task in ASL. A small subset of prime-target pairs was phonologically related and another small subset was semantically related; the majority of stimulus pairs were unrelated linguistically. Reaction time for sign recognition increased as age of ASL acquisition increased and varied as a function of the linguistic structure of sign. Phonological overlap between the prime and target facilitated sign recognition for signers who learned to sign in early childhood but inhibited it for signers who learned ASL at older ages. By contrast, semantic overlap between the prime and target facilitated sign recognition for all signers independent of age of acquisition. These results show that sign recognition entails a stage of phonological processing that is sensitive to age of acquisition, as is the case for recognition of spoken words.