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J Mem Lang. 2013 Nov 1;69(4). doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2013.05.004.

Generating a lexicon without a language model: Do words for number count?

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University of Chicago, Department of Psychology, 5848 S. University Ave., Chicago IL 60637, , ,


Homesigns are communication systems created by deaf individuals without access to conventional linguistic input. To investigate how homesign gestures for number function in short-term memory compared to homesign gestures for objects, actions, or attributes, we conducted memory span tasks with adult homesigners in Nicaragua, and with comparison groups of unschooled hearing Spanish speakers and deaf Nicaraguan Sign Language signers. There was no difference between groups in recall of gestures or words for objects, actions or attributes; homesign gestures therefore can function as word units in short-term memory. However, homesigners showed poorer recall of numbers than the other groups. Unlike the other groups, increasing the numerical value of the to-be-remembered quantities negatively affected recall in homesigners, but not controls. When developed without linguistic input, gestures for number do not seem to function as summaries of the cardinal values of the sets (four), but rather as indexes of items within a set (one-one-one-one).


Nicaraguan Sign Language; digit span; gesture; homesign; lexical representation; numerical cognition; short-term memory

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