The Impact of Language Modality on Children’s Visual-Spatial Cognition
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The communication demands of sign and spoken language are different. The purpose of this research was to investigate the relationship between language modality (manual or aural-oral) and specific aspects of visual-spatial cognition (image generation and visual-spatial memory) thought to be involved in sign language processing. Previous research has primarily addressed these issues in adults. A case study approach was used to explore the developmental time-course of the impact of language modality on children’s visual-spatial cognition. Participants included fifteen children (aged nine - thirteen years) whose hearing and signing status differed: six deaf signers, three deaf non-signers, a native hearing signer and five hearing non-signers. Computer automated tasks assessed non-linguistic image generation and visual–spatial memory abilities. The relationship between a child’s visual-spatial cognitive performance and ability to learn novel lexical items (signs and written word) in familiar and unfamiliar modalities was considered. Whilst not all results were significant, all signers were faster than hearing controls at generating mental images at all age levels, replicating previous findings in adults (Emmorey et al. 1993). Results suggest, regular generation of visual mental images during sign language communication facilitates performance on non-linguistic tasks requiring similar skills. Contrary to previous literature (for example Wilson et al. 1997) superior visual–spatial memory performance was not found across signers. No concrete relationships emerged between visual-spatial cognition and word learning abilities. Trends requiring further investigation did emerge, but due to the breadth of individual differences in this area, making firm conclusions regarding word learning abilities was not possible. Inconsistencies with earlier research are discussed in relation to methodological limitations. The importance of assessing the separate and additive effects of auditory deprivation per se, sign language fluency, and age of sign language acquisition, on visual-spatial cognition are discussed.