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The frequency-lag hypothesis proposes that bilinguals have slowed lexical retrieval relative to monolinguals and in their nondominant language relative to their dominant language, particularly for low-frequency words. These effects arise because bilinguals divide their language use between 2 languages and use their nondominant language less frequently. We conducted a picture-naming study with hearing American Sign Language (ASL)–English bilinguals (bimodal bilinguals), deaf signers, and English-speaking monolinguals. As predicted by the frequency-lag hypothesis, bimodal bilinguals were slower, less accurate, and exhibited a larger frequency effect when naming pictures in ASL as compared with English (their dominant language) and as compared with deaf signers. For English there was no difference in naming latencies, error rates, or frequency effects for bimodal bilinguals as compared with monolinguals. Neither age of ASL acquisition nor interpreting experience affected the results; picture-naming accuracy and frequency effects were equivalent for deaf signers and English monolinguals. Larger frequency effects in ASL relative to English for bimodal bilinguals suggests that they are affected by a frequency lag in ASL. The absence of a lag for English could reflect the use of mouthing and/or code-blending, which may shield bimodal bilinguals from the lexical slowing observed for spoken language bilinguals in the dominant language.

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In sum, the pattern of frequency effects in English and ASL for bimodal bilinguals, deaf ASL signers, and English monolingual speakers argue for the following: (a) English is the dominant language for bimodal bilinguals, even when ASL is acquired natively from birth; (b) less frequent use of ASL by bimodal bilinguals leads to a larger frequency effect for ASL, supporting the frequency-lag hypothesis, and c) the frequent use of mouthing and/or code-blending may shield bimodal bilinguals from the lexical slowing that occurs for spoken language bilinguals for their dominant language.

In this study, we investigated whether the frequency-lag hypothesis holds for bimodal bilinguals who have acquired a spoken language, English, and a signed language, American Sign Language (ASL). Although deaf ASL signers are bilingual in English (to varying degrees), we reserve the term “bimodal bilingual” for hearing ASL–English bilinguals who acquired spoken English primarily through audition and without special training. Using a picture-naming task, we explored whether bimodal bilinguals exhibit slower lexical retrieval times for spoken words and a larger frequency effect as compared with English-speaking monolinguals. Unlike spoken language bilinguals (i.e., unimodal bilinguals), bimodal bilinguals do not necessarily divide their language use between two languages because they can—and often do—code-blend, that is, produce ASL signs and English words at the same time (; ; ). Code-blending is a form of language mixing in which, typically, one or more ASL signs accompany an English utterance (in this case, English is the Matrix language; see , for discussion). Recently, ) found that bimodal bilinguals exhibited more lexical retrieval failures (TOTs) than monolingual English speakers and the same TOT rate as Spanish–English bilinguals, suggesting that bimodal bilinguals are affected by frequency lag. However, bimodal bilinguals also exhibited slightly better lexical retrieval success than the unimodal bilinguals on other measures (e.g., they produced more correct responses and reported fewer negative or “false” TOTs). attributed this in-between pattern of lexical retrieval success for bimodal bilinguals to more frequent use of English, possibly due to the unique ability to code-blend. Thus, the predictions of the frequency-lag hypothesis may not hold for English for bimodal bilinguals.