Modality of language shapes working memory: Evidence from digit span and spatial span in ASL signers

  • Wilson M
  • Bettger J
  • Niculae I
 et al. 
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Deaf children who are native users of American Sign Lan-guage (ASL) and hearing children who are native English speakers performed three working memory tasks. Results in-dicate that language modality shapes the architecture of working memory. Digit span with forward and backward re-port, performed by each group in their native language, sug-gests that the language rehearsal mechanisms for spoken language and for sign language differ in their processing con-straints. Unlike hearing children, deaf children who are na-tive signers of ASL were as good at backward recall of digits as at forward recall, suggesting that serial order information for ASL is stored in a form that does not have a preferred directionality. Data from a group of deaf children who were not native signers of ASL rule out explanations in terms of a floor effect or a nonlinguistic visual strategy. Further, deaf children who were native signers outperformed hearing chil-dren on a nonlinguistic spatial memory task, suggesting that language expertise in a particular modality exerts an influ-ence on nonlinguistic working memory within that modality. Thus, language modality has consequences for the structure of working memory, both within and outside the linguistic domain. Working memory, or short-term memory, has long been held to represent information in separate verbal

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  • Margaret Wilson

  • Jeffrey G Bettger

  • Isabela Niculae

  • Edward S Klima

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