Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Frequency Characteristics of American Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Frequency Characteristics of American Sign Language

Article excerpt

THE PRIMARY factor affecting spoken language processing of individual words is the frequency of occurrence. For example, in a word recognition task, listeners respond more quickly to frequent words (e.g., dog) than to infrequent ones (e.g., hound; Kawamoto et al. 1999). Similarly, speakers make fewer errors when naming highfrequency words than low-frequency ones presented to only one visual field (Scott and Hellige 1998). A typical error that second language learners make involves replacing infrequent verbs with frequent ones (Lennon 1998). Word frequency also affects phonological and grammatical processing. For example, high-frequency words with grammatical suffixes (e.g., -ed, -ing) are processed as a single unit, but low-frequency words have to be broken down into parts during processing (Alegre and Gordon 1999). Frequency effects are so ubiquitous in language processing tasks that no peer-reviewed journal would accept a psycholinguistic study of a spoken language for publication if the study didn't control for word frequency. Controlling for word frequency poses little problem to investigators using English stimuli because there are several resources that report word frequencies for English, such as Francis and Kucera's (1982) study of word frequency in English print and the British National Corpus (BNC) for word frequency of spoken and written English.1

Frequency also plays an important role in determining language structure. Many grammatical elements of spoken languages arise from the frequent collocation of separate words that eventually become processed as individual units with a more generalized meaning than the original phrase (Bybee 1998). For example, English terms such as gonna, shoulda, and sorta are all derived from words that frequently co-occur: "going to," "should have," and "sort of." Simultaneously with the phonological changes in these terms, the scope of meaning changes as well. Note for example, that although examples 1, 3, and 4 are acceptable English sentences, example 2 is not. The phrase "going to" originally referred only to movement along a path, as in example 1. The newer, and more generalized, meaning of intentionality or future action can be expressed by either the older form, "going to," as in example 3, or by the newer, reduced form, "gonna" (Bybee 1998), as in example 4. However, the newer form "gonna" cannot be used to express the original meaning of "going to," as in example 2.

1. I'm going to New York.

2. *I'm gonna New York.

3. I'm going to think about it.

4. I'm gonna think about it.

In sum, frequency is an important factor in individual instances of language processing, as well as in long-term changes that take place in the dialect of a community of language users.

Despite the widespread recognition of frequency effects in spoken languages, few studies of signed languages have addressed this issue. To demonstrate this contrast, compare the outcomes of two literature searches. An electronic search of 1,534,000 psychology articles and chapters on the PsycINFO database using the search terms "sign language" and "frequency" did not identify any relevant documents, but 936 articles in the same database were returned on a search of word frequency in spoken languages. Most important, there are no resources for investigators who would like to control for sign frequency. Emmorey and colleagues (Emmorey 1991; Emmorey, Norman, and O'Grady iggi) have used an innovative approach to overcome the lack of frequency counts for signs. They asked native signers to estimate the frequency of signs on a scale from one to ten. By using signs with similar frequency ratings, they can investigate sign-language processing effects while controlling for frequency. Emmorey (2002, 128) describes an unpublished study (Emmorey 1990) in which she found that, in a lexical-decision task, native signers responded significantly more quickly to signs given a high frequency rating than to signs given a low frequency rating. …

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