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ASL and the Brain

As someone who is hard-of-hearing, I’ve been fascinated for a long time by sign languages and have been learning American Sign Language (ASL) for awhile now.  I find myself constantly trying to dispel misconceptions and increase awareness about the third most spoken language in the United States.  For example, many think that you must spell every word out, that it is just English on the hands and not an independent language, or that there is a universal sign language that deaf people everywhere use–but these are all false.  One aspect I find particularly interesting about sign languages is that even though they are visual and not auditory-based, there are studies that suggest signing uses the same parts of the brain as spoken language.

This article explains that the regions of the brain, Broca’s and Wernike’s areas, are respectively vital to language production an comprehension.  Despite using completely different senses and muscles, stroke damage to these areas in hearing and deaf people had similar negative effects on their ability to communicate.  One possible difference between the brain usage of talkers and signers might exist in the right hemisphere, according to the article.  ASL may use the right hemisphere more due to the spatial processing and facial expression interpreting required.

This and other studies are not conclusive, but it’s fascinating to think how the same areas of the brain may be responsible for such different means of communication!

  1. April 23, 2012 at 2:21 am

    Interesting! I’m also interested in sign language, but mine, I’d say, is more of a passive interest. The reason I think it’s misunderstood (though I didn’t realize that it was as misunderstood as you say here) is that it’s very much a “language of last resort” whose unique status exonerates it from the pressures and principles that govern spoken language. That is to say, while linguists distinguish between “covert” and “overt” prestige, ASL–and, indeed, any other sign language–occupies a space in society where its efficacy and necessity go virtually uncontested. And while the fact that it has unique grammar, &c indicates that it is a language in its own right, certain qualities that define a language in a linguistic sense serve to dispute this.

    • HK
      April 23, 2012 at 3:17 am

      I respect what you have to say as an individual, but I just personally ask that you be more mindful and careful with your words. Things like saying ASL is a “‘language of last resort’” or that it is somehow lesser to a spoken language is hurtful (especially to someone who very much respects ASL and deaf culture). Also, I’m not quite sure what you mean by “‘covert’ and ‘overt’ prestige” or the “certain qualities that define a language in a linguistic sense” which prevent ASL from being considered a language in its own right. Maybe you could clarify. Again, I’m sure you meant no offense, but I would ask you be more mindful.

      • April 30, 2012 at 2:53 am

        Mea culpa.

  2. April 23, 2012 at 2:55 am

    Even though hands genstures and sign language is more used as acommunciation tool than verbal language, sign language it self is not universal. In that case, I am intersted in how ASL user learn GSL and other regional dialects and culture. Is there limit to learn different sign language just through watching?

    • HK
      April 23, 2012 at 3:14 am

      Sign languages are distinct languages and are totally different from country to country. Even British and American sign languages are totally different. If an ASL signer wants to learn GSL, they have to learn it in the same way an English speaker has to learn German. The limit to learning a foreign sign language by watching is the same as learning a foreign spoken language by listening. It’s much more work than learning a regional dialect which do differ from region to region within the United States–just like spoken accents.

  3. avtheo
    April 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Sign language has always intrigued me because it seems so hard to communicate with your hands. At the same time, watching people speak through sign language it is very beautiful to witness. But what really perplexes me how other countries and languages sign to eachother because ASL is not universal so how do other sign languages fit into this?

  4. April 29, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    I really am fascinated by the fact that spoken communication and sign languages use the same part of the brain, despite the fact that one requires audio/visual engagement. To respond to the question in the previous post, I am assuming that you would have to learn the signs for another language, like you have to learn the words to communicate with someone who speaks another language.
    Also, after doing a little research (from this website http://edl.ecml.at/FAQ/FAQsonsignlanguage/tabid/2741/language/en-GB/Default.aspx), I found out a few things that interested me: 1) The misconception of sign language being a representation of spoken words is not true, and there are grammar and syntax rules that are necessary like there are for spoken language. 2) There is a International Sign which is used at international conferences. According to the website, “It does not have a fixed grammar or lexicon and relies heavily on gestures, which have meaning only in that specific context, and uses vocabulary from the signer’s native language. This means, signs are clarified and often more than one sign is used to describe a concept to ensure understanding.”
    I think that it’s amazing that they can generally have a way of developing an international sign, which is not really possible for spoken language. Clearly, being the third most spoken language in the U.S, it cannot be considered any less than a spoken language- and it’s sad that people put down the language because it isn’t like the spoken language.

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