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J Speech Hear Res. 1993 Dec;36(6):1258-70.

First-language acquisition after childhood differs from second-language acquisition: the case of American Sign Language.

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McGill University, Montreal, Canada.


This study determined whether the long-range outcome of first-language acquisition, when the learning begins after early childhood, is similar to that of second-language acquisition. Subjects were 36 deaf adults who had contrasting histories of spoken and sign language acquisition. Twenty-seven subjects were born deaf and began to acquire American Sign Language (ASL) as a first language at ages ranging from infancy to late childhood. Nine other subjects were born with normal hearing, which they lost in late childhood; they subsequently acquired ASL as a second language (because they had acquired spoken English as a first language in early childhood). ASL sentence processing was measured by recall of long and complex sentences and short-term memory for signed digits. Subjects who acquired ASL as a second language after childhood outperformed those who acquired it as a first language at exactly the same age. In addition, the performance of the subjects who acquired ASL as a first language declined in association with increasing age of acquisition. Effects were most apparent for sentence processing skills related to lexical identification, grammatical acceptability, and memory for sentence meaning. No effects were found for skills related to fine-motor production and pattern segmentation.

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