Working Memory, Deafness, and Sign Language

Matthew L. Hall and Daphne Bavelier

in The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, Vol. 2

Published in print June 2010 | ISBN: 9780195390032
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

 Working Memory, Deafness, and Sign Language

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  • Psychology
  • Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology


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Working memory (WM) refers to the human capacity to encode, store, manipulate, and recall information.  A proper understanding of WM therefore provides essential insights into human cognition. This chapter reviews available research concerning the impact of deafness and sign language use on WM, much of which comes from the study of a single subcomponent of WM termed short-term memory (STM). We argue that excessive focus on STM (the ability to encode, store, and retrieve a sequence of unrelated words in serial order) to the exclusion of other WM subprocesses has caused an extreme interest in phonological coding at the expense of other known codes used in WM, in particular visual but also episodic codes. Deafness and use of a sign language may result in greater reliance on not only visual but also episodic coding, as compared to what is typically observed in hearing nonsigners. This multiple coding hypothesis calls into question whether the robust phonological bias described in hearing individuals should be taken by researchers, clinicians, and educators as the gold standard for deaf populations.

Keywords: working memory; deafness; sign language; short-term memory; digit span; phonological store; multiple coding hypothesis; episodic buffer

Article.  11154 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Educational Psychology ; Cognitive Psychology

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