Input processing at first exposure to a sign language

Gerardo Ortega, Gary Morgan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


There is growing interest in learners’ cognitive capacities to process a second language (L2) at first exposure to the target language. Evidence suggests that L2 learners are capable of processing novel words by exploiting phonological information from their first language (L1). Hearing adult learners of a sign language, however, cannot fall back on their L1 to process novel signs because the modality differences between speech (aural–oral) and sign (visual-manual) do not allow for direct cross-linguistic influence. Sign language learners might use alternative strategies to process input expressed in the manual channel. Learners may rely on iconicity, the direct relationship between a sign and its referent. Evidence up to now has shown that iconicity facilitates learning in non-signers, but it is unclear whether it also facilitates sign production. In order to fill this gap, the present study investigated how iconicity influenced articulation of the phonological components of signs. In Study 1, hearing non-signers viewed a set of iconic and arbitrary signs along with their English translations and repeated the signs as accurately as possible immediately after. The results show that participants imitated iconic signs significantly less accurately than arbitrary signs. In Study 2, a second group of hearing non-signers imitated the same set of signs but without the accompanying English translations. The same lower accuracy for iconic signs was observed. We argue that learners rely on iconicity to process manual input because it brings familiarity to the target (sign) language. However, this reliance comes at a cost as it leads to a more superficial processing of the signs’ full phonetic form. The present findings add to our understanding of learners’ cognitive capacities at first exposure to a signed L2, and raises new theoretical questions in the field of second language acquisition.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)443-463
Number of pages21
JournalSecond Language Research
Issue number4
Early online date26 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2015


  • Sign Language
  • second language acquisition
  • education


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