Word order or world knowledge?

Previous studies suggest that simple sentence structures are relatively unaffected by early language deprivation. Still, it is an empirical question whether deaf late L1 learners actually make use of basic word order when comprehending simple mono-clausal sentences. Previous studies are insufficient to answer this question as they only looked at reversible sentences with probable meanings and animate subjects. One possibility is that deaf late L1 learners may use alternative strategies, such as agent first and probable event bias, to comprehend simple sentences.

This ongoing project uses a sentence-picture matching experiment to explicitly test how deaf individuals with early language deprivation interpret simple subject-verb-object (SVO) sentences in American Sign Language (ASL). We have 4 types of target sentence conditions, contrasting in event probability and noun animacy. If late L1 learners always follow the canonical word order to interpret sentence meaning, we expect them to perform well across all conditions. Instead, if they rely on alternative strategies, we expect them to perform worse, especially with the improbable sentence conditions.

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Our preliminary findings suggest that deaf late L1 learners performed significantly above chance for the filler condition and the probable conditions, but significantly below chance for both improbable conditions, regardless of subject animacy. These results suggest that late L1 learners do not fully rely on abstract syntactic structures such as basic word order when comprehending simple ASL sentences in real time. Instead, they tend to adopt the probable event strategy, just like three-year-olds, as reported in literature (Strohner & Nelson 1974).

Cheng, Q., & Mayberry, R. (2019, Mar). Do late first-language learners of ASL rely on word order to comprehend simple sentences?. Oral presentation at the 32nd Annual CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing, Boulder, CO.

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