Emily McHugh

Emily McHugh award winner

Emily is an undergraduate student in the Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences Department at the University of Florida. She is majoring in Communication Sciences and Disorders and minoring in Disabilities in Society as well as Deaf and Hearing Sciences. She will be graduating with a Bachelor of Health Science degree this spring and will be entering graduate school for Speech-Language Pathology in the upcoming fall semester. Her experience as an undergraduate Teaching Assistant for American Sign Language and Deaf Culture have sparked her current research interests, which include how people learn words both aurally and visually, through signing. She is looking forward to further pursuing research in this area through the completion of a master’s thesis in graduate school. After completion of her master’s degree and ASHA Certificate of Clinical Competence, Emily plans to pursue a PhD with a focus in developmental delays and disabilities.

Word Learning in Two Modalities

Emily Anne McHugh
Lori J. P. Altmann, Ph.D.


A majority of research on language development has focused on examining spoken word learning and its role in the development of language, but there has been more limited research investigating the role of gesture and signed words in language development. This study investigated the impact of modality of word presentation on the learning of an associated meaning, the impact of modality of meaning presentation on the learning of an associated word, as well as the impact of crossing modalities on the speed and accuracy of learned associations. Participants viewed short videos of a person saying a nonword or making a sign paired with either a picture or a written definition. Outcome variables were accuracy and response times for recall of meanings.

The analysis of accuracy revealed a significant interaction between presentation modality and meaning modality. Accuracy in the nonword-picture condition was at ceiling and thus, significantly greater than accuracy in the nonword-definition condition and nonsign-picture condition. Analysis of response times found the main effect of meaning format to be statistically significant. Participants were significantly slower when meaning was presented as a definition compared to when it was presented as a picture. These results suggest that meaning associations with novel signs are learned equally fast and accurate as those associated with novel words. Additionally, they suggest that people recall imageable meanings faster than definitions. Finally, results also indicate that typically functioning adults maintain a robust ability for learning word-picture associations likely developed in childhood.

Key Words: word learning, signs, sign language

McHugh Poster