Language Transfer in the Acquisition of English as a Third Language: The Case of Deaf Signers

Miller, P. 1 & Rosenstein, O. 2

1 Department of Special Education, University of Haifa, Israel
2 Gordon Academic college of Education, Haifa, Israel

This study focused on the impact of deaf individuals? linguistic knowledge in L1 Israeli Sign Language (ISL) and L2 Hebrew on their ability to syntactically process L3 English sentences. We tested the sentence comprehension of English sentences of 88 deaf participants and 103 hearing controls from junior high, high school, and the university. Language transfer was tapped by using English sentences of different degrees of structural similarity to Hebrew and /or ISL.
Both deaf and hearing participants displayed a marked weakness in comprehending sentences that were structurally dissimilar to Hebrew. Similarity to ISL was not found to bootstrap English sentence comprehension.
In the absence of massive exposure to a language, the acquisition of even its most basic constructions may be limited to those that can be bootstrapped by prior linguistic knowledge. However, learners may not recruit prior linguistic knowledge if they perceive the distance between the known and the new language as too large. In any case, teachers should raise language learners' awareness of both similarities and dissimilarities between L1, L2 and L3. This includes signers, who should be trained to use their knowledge of sign language as a resource for learning and mastering spoken language structures.