Contextualized Recognition of Fingerspelled Words

January 1, 2016


Fingerspelling, an aspect of American Sign Language, is difficult for second language English-speaking adults to learn (Bahleda, 1998), yet mastery is required by professional ASL-English interpreters. This study compared novice and expert interpreters’ interpretation of fingerspelled words under the assumption that exposure to priming material in their L1, English, would enable the interpreters to recognize those terms when fingerspelled in their L2, ASL. In this study, participants (15 novices, 15 experts) were asked to interpret an ASL text with 25 “carefully” fingerspelled words embedded. Ten subjects were not given priming materials, ten a list of words in printed English that represented the “carefully” fingerspelled words in the ASL text, and ten were given a printed English story synopsis with the “carefully” fingerspelled words embedded. Overall, there was evidence of an L1 priming effect as the interpreters who were given access to the English words interpreted more of the fingerspelled words correctly than the interpreters who were given no priming materials (*p=0.04). As predicted, the experts did significantly better at recognizing the “carefully” fingerspelled words than the novices (*p=0.00). As there was no significant difference across the three conditions for the experts (no priming, list of words, story synopsis), they may have been more balanced bilinguals than the novices. However, the expert interpreters who were given no L1 priming materials did not perform significantly better than the novices in any of the three conditions. The five novices who were given a list of words as priming material were more accurate than the ten novices in the other two conditions (no priming and story synopsis). There was also no significant difference for the five novices who were given the list of words as compared to the three expert groups. Tentatively, it would seem that experts without priming materials experienced a depressed ability to read fingerspelling and novice interpreters benefited greatly from the provision of a list of English words.


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McDermid, Campbell; Finton, Lynn; and Chasney, Alexis (2016) “Contextualized Recognition of Fingerspelled Words,” Journal of Interpretation: Vol. 25 : Iss. 1 , Article 6.

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