[Colloquium] Variation as a perspective on the interaction between language processing and cognition: Insights from sign language and bimodal bilingualism

Despite great variability in the expressions (nouns, pronouns, etc.) which languages use to refer to people and objects, studies of referential cohesion have discovered a high degree of cross-linguistic similarity in how those referring expressions are selected and resolved across discourse contexts. Recent findings, however, suggest that language processing may not always look the same across speakers and contexts. Specifically, there is emerging evidence that language processing can be dynamically affected by involvement of non-linguistic cognitive processes, yet little is understood about how variation in language experience and language use shape this involvement and what its role is in processing referential cohesion.
In this talk, I outline a program of research that exploits differences between the spoken and the signed modality as well as differences in language experience to inform the current understanding of language processing, and specifically processing of referential cohesion. The first part of the talk asks whether fundamental principles of pronoun processing hold for language in the visual-manual modality. Sign languages are articulated in the space around the signer. This results in linguistic affordances that are drastically different from those in spoken languages and provides a unique perspective from which to question existing assumptions about language structure and processing. I present results from a study of pronoun interpretation in ASL showing that semantic-pragmatic cues known to affect pronoun interpretation in spoken languages similarly guide pronoun comprehension in ASL, additional evidence that the use of such cues constitute a universal principle in language processing.
The second part of the talk discusses emerging findings suggesting that language experiences, such as bilingualism and an individual’s interactional contexts, shape the interface between language processing and cognition. I outline ongoing and future work on processing of referential cohesion that arises from my work on ASL and uses converging methods to probe which aspects of language processing exhibit plasticity. This research sits at the intersection of several current and emerging trends in language processing and bilingualism and exploits the unique language experience of sign-speech bilinguals to gain insights into how experience with language regulation and contexts of language use dynamically affect the interaction between language processing and cognition.