Short-term memory stages in sign vs. speech: The source of the serial span discrepancy
Speakers generally outperform signers when asked to recall a list of unrelated verbal items. This phenomenon is well established, but its source has remained unclear. In this study, we evaluate the relative contribution of the three main processing stages of short-term memory – perception, encoding, and recall – in this effect. The present study factorially manipulates whether American Sign Language (ASL) or English is used for perception, memory encoding, and recall in hearing ASL-English bilinguals. Results indicate that using ASL during both perception and encoding contributes to the serial span discrepancy. Interestingly, performing recall in ASL slightly increased span, ruling out the view that signing is in general a poor choice for short-term memory. These results suggest that despite the general equivalence of sign and speech in other memory domains, speech-based representations are better suited for the specific task of perception and memory encoding of a series of unrelated verbal items in serial order through the phonological loop. This work suggests that interpretation of performance on serial recall tasks in English may not translate straightforwardly to serial tasks in sign language.