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Investigating Deaf Children's Vocabulary Knowledge in British Sign Language


  • This work was supported by a City University London Research Fellowship awarded to the first author and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship awarded to the second author. The authors would like to thank the team of teachers/speech language therapists who helped developing the target items, Neil Fox for modeling all target and distractor signs, Kate Rowley for signing the British Sign Language instructions, and Breish Rowe for assisting with data coding. Furthermore, we would like to thank Gary Morgan and Brenda Schick for their comments on the test format. We are very much indebted to the three anonymous reviewers and the associate editor of this journal, Marianne Gullberg, for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this work as well as the main editor, Lourdes Ortega, for her final suggestions. Finally, we would like to express our gratitude to all the children and teachers who took part in and supported this research study.

 Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Wolfgang Mann, Department of Language and Communication Science, City University London, Northampton Square, London EC1V 0HB, UK. Internet:; and Chloë Marshall, Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education, University of London, 25 Woburn Square, London WC1H 0AA, UK. Internet:


This study explores different aspects of the mapping between phonological form and meaning of signs in British Sign Language (BSL) by means of four tasks to measure meaning recognition, form recognition, form recall, and meaning recall. The aim was to investigate whether there is a hierarchy of difficulty for these tasks and, therefore, whether BSL vocabulary acquisition proceeds incrementally, as is the case for spoken languages. Twenty-four deaf participants (aged 5–15 years), all of whom were BSL users, performed with greatest accuracy on meaning recognition and least accurately on meaning recall. The results indicate that signers’ knowledge of mapping between form and meaning in BSL signs is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon but depends on what the learner is required to do with that knowledge, as is the case for spoken languages.