Letter recognition plays an important role in reading and follows different phases of processing, from early visual feature detection to the access of abstract letter representations. Deaf ASL–English bilinguals experience orthography in two forms: English letters and fingerspelling. However, the neurobiological nature of fingerspelling representations, and the relationship between the two orthographies, remains unexplored. We examined the temporal dynamics of single English letter and ASL fingerspelling font processing in an unmasked priming paradigm with centrally presented targets for 200 ms preceded by 100 ms primes. Event-related brain potentials were recorded while participants performed a probe detection task. Experiment 1 examined English letter-to-letter priming in deaf signers and hearing non-signers. We found that English letter recognition is similar for deaf and hearing readers, extending previous findings with hearing readers to unmasked presentations. Experiment 2 examined priming effects between English letters and ASL fingerspelling fonts in deaf signers only. We found that fingerspelling fonts primed both fingerspelling fonts and English letters, but English letters did not prime fingerspelling fonts, indicating a priming asymmetry between letters and fingerspelling fonts. We also found an N400-like priming effect when the primes were fingerspelling fonts which might reflect strategic access to the lexical names of letters. The studies suggest that deaf ASL–English bilinguals process English letters and ASL fingerspelling differently and that the two systems may have distinct neural representations. However, the fact that fingerspelling fonts can prime English letters suggests that the two orthographies may share abstract representations to some extent.

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Author notes

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Handling Editor: David P. Corina

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