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Lang Cogn Process. 2013 Mar 1;28(3):261-271. Epub 2012 Feb 23.

When does Iconicity in Sign Language Matter?

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Department of Technology, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain ; Basque Research Center on Cognition, Brain and Language, Spain.


We examined whether iconicity in American Sign Language (ASL) enhances translation performance for new learners and proficient signers. Fifteen hearing nonsigners and 15 proficient ASL-English bilinguals performed a translation recognition task and a production translation task. Nonsigners were taught 28 ASL verbs (14 iconic; 14 non-iconic) prior to performing these tasks. Only new learners benefited from sign iconicity, recognizing iconic translations faster and more accurately and exhibiting faster forward (English-ASL) and backward (ASL-English) translation times for iconic signs. In contrast, proficient ASL-English bilinguals exhibited slower recognition and translation times for iconic signs. We suggest iconicity aids memorization in the early stages of adult sign language learning, but for fluent L2 signers, iconicity interacts with other variables that slow translation (specifically, the iconic signs had more translation equivalents than the non-iconic signs). Iconicity may also have slowed translation performance by forcing conceptual mediation for iconic signs, which is slower than translating via direct lexical links.


American Sign Language; bilingualism; iconicity; translation

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