Brain and language: Insights from studies of American Sign Language

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As opposed to popular views of sign language, Dr. David P. Corina, Ph. D. of the University of California’s Departments of Linguistics and Psychology, asserted that sign language is no different than the spoken language, rather than a byproduct of any spoken language. Last night, in front of a mixed crowd of young and old, deaf and able, Dr. Corina expressed the nature and significance of his research concerning sign language’s intrinsic value to linguistic research and the understanding the human brain.

Dr. Corina’s research focuses on the astounding similarities observed within the brain between sign and spoken language. And thus, Dr. Corina stresses the independence of sign language as an actual language. “People always ask, how did sign language start, and I tell them, exactly how spoken languages started. The facts about sign language: it is not an invented language Ð it is a language that has evolved naturally, much like English or Spanish,” he said.

In fact, the inception of American Sign Language (ASL) is accredited to Hartford, Connecticut. According to Dr. Corina, ASL was established in Hartford in an effort guided by French signers. Therefore, modern ASL and French Sign Language have similar roots, like the similarities of the Spanish and Italian spoken languages. However, ASL and British Sign Language are completely incompatible, like the Spanish and Thai spoken languages.

According to Dr. Corina, the only difference between sign and spoken language is the method with which they are delivered. Like English, ASL has a natural history of evolution and growth. Studying the human brain has allowed Dr. Corina to examine the similarities in neurological activity between signers and speakers.

Dr. Corina’s research poses the question: What parts of the brain are involved in sign language? The answer: many of those parts involved in spoken language. While this answer may seem obvious, historical research involved the brain and spoken language, neglecting to engage sign language as an official language.

“We need to study sign language and the areas of the brain it affects. Why is this necessary? It is necessary to understand for the educational practice of how the brain changes with learning; to understand the normal plasticity and adaptability of the human brain; for the sake medicinal research; and just out of basic curiosity,” Dr. Corina said.

In a developmental study of infants, Dr. Corina provided evidence that children are born with an interest in language. “Infants are pre-equipped to tackle any language they are exposed to, but after 10 months, they have a preference for the language of their community,” he said.

Experimenting with six month-old infants, Dr. Corina determined that infants showed a preference for sign language over pantomiming. The results of this experiment provided evidence to qualify Dr. Corina’s claim that children are born with an interest in knowledge. Given that sign language is an actually language, whereas pantomiming is mere gesticulation, infants should have and did have a preference for the sign language.

Also, testing the human brain’s performance when exposed to semantic and syntactic grammatical errors, both speakers and signers demonstrated equal neurological activity. This discovery provided more evidence that sign language is like any other spoken language. According to Dr. Corina, language is developed on the left hemisphere of the human brain, centered in the Braca and Wernicke areas of the brain. These areas demonstrate equal activity and functionality in both signers and speakers.

“Sign language, like spoken language, is a continuously evolving language. There are many different sign languages, like there are many different sign languages. There is no universal sign language. We are moving closer to understanding the neurobiological study of language by including sign language, ” he said.

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