Event-related potentials (ERPs) were used to investigate co-activation of English words during recognition of American Sign Language (ASL) signs. Deaf and hearing signers viewed pairs of ASL signs and judged their semantic relatedness. Half of the semantically unrelated signs had English translations that shared an orthographic and phonological rime (e.g., BAR–STAR) and half did not (e.g., NURSE–STAR). Classic N400 and behavioral semantic priming effects were observed in both groups. For hearing signers, targets in sign pairs with English rime translations elicited a smaller N400 compared to targets in pairs with unrelated English translations. In contrast, a reversed N400 effect was observed for deaf signers: target signs in English rime translation pairs elicited a larger N400 compared to targets in pairs with unrelated English translations. This reversed effect was overtaken by a later, more typical ERP priming effect for deaf signers who were aware of the manipulation. These findings provide evidence that implicit language co-activation in bimodal bilinguals is bidirectional. However, the distinct pattern of effects in deaf and hearing signers suggests that it may be modulated by differences in language proficiency and dominance as well as by asymmetric reliance on orthographic versus phonological representations.
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