Semantic processing of adjectives and nouns in American Sign Language: effects of reference ambiguity and word order across development

  • Anne WienholzEmail author
  • Amy M. Lieberman
Research Paper


When processing spoken language sentences, listeners continuously make and revise predictions about the upcoming linguistic signal. In contrast, during comprehension of American Sign Language (ASL), signers must simultaneously attend to the unfolding linguistic signal and the surrounding scene via the visual modality. This may affect how signers activate potential lexical candidates and allocate visual attention as a sentence unfolds. To determine how signers resolve referential ambiguity during real-time comprehension of ASL adjectives and nouns, we presented deaf adults (n = 18, 19–61 years) and deaf children (n = 20, 4–8 years) with videos of ASL sentences in a visual world paradigm. Sentences had either an adjective-noun (e.g., “SEE YELLOW WHAT? FLOWER”) or a noun-adjective (e.g., “SEE FLOWER WHICH? YELLOW”) structure. The degree of ambiguity in the visual scene was manipulated at the adjective and noun levels (e.g., including one or more yellow items and one or more flowers in the visual array). We investigated effects of ambiguity and word order on target looking at early and late points in the sentence. Analysis revealed that adults and children made anticipatory looks to a target when it could be identified early in the sentence. Further, signers looked more to potential lexical candidates than to unrelated competitors in the early window, and more to matched than unrelated competitors in the late window. Children’s gaze patterns largely aligned with those of adults, although they made fewer anticipatory fixations to the target in the early window and were more susceptible to competitors in the late window. Together, these findings suggest that signers allocate referential attention strategically based on the amount and type of ambiguity at different points in the sentence when processing adjectives and nouns in ASL.


American Sign Language Eye tracking Semantic processing Visual world Deaf 



This work was funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders (NIDCD), grant number R01DC015272. We thank Rachel Mayberry and Arielle Borovsky for valuable input, and Marla Hatrak, Michael Higgins, and Valerie Sharer for help with data collection. We are grateful to all of the individuals who participated in this study.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (XLSX 19 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wheelock College of Education and Human DevelopmentBoston UniversityBostonUSA

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