Iconic gestures serve as manual cognates in hearing second language learners of a sign language: an ERP study

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  • Tilburg University
  • Radboud University


When learning a second spoken language, cognates, words overlapping in form and meaning with one’s native language, help breaking into the language one wishes to acquire. But what happens when the to-be-acquired second language is a sign language? We tested whether hearing nonsigners rely on their gestural repertoire at first exposure to a sign language. Participants saw iconic signs with high and low overlap with the form of iconic gestures while electrophysiological brain activity was recorded. Upon first exposure, signs with low overlap with gestures elicited enhanced positive amplitude in the P3a component compared to signs with high overlap. This effect disappeared after a training session. We conclude that nonsigners generate expectations about the form of iconic signs never seen before based on their implicit knowledge of gestures, even without
having to produce them. Learners thus draw from any available semiotic resources when acquiring a second language, and not only from their linguistic experience.


Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2019


  • Sign Language, gesture, iconicity, ERPs, L2 acquisition, Sign language, Gesture, Iconicity, Second language acquisition