How The Brain Does Language

by Eddie P.

There has been some controversy over the years as to what role has sign language played in the evolution of language and if there were any similarities with spoken language. Most people believe language is solely about speaking, which would make sign language not a language at all.

Recent studies have shown that our brain detects very deep similarities between speech and sign languages. When we speak, the brain is not taking into consideration the modality (speech or sign), it’s simply projecting the abstract structure or in other words, the meaning of what we are saying or signing.

Professor Iris Berent of Northwestern University wanted to break this misconception that sign language is not really a language. She wanted to reveal the complex structure of sign language and how it strong related to spoken language.

She did this by doing an experiment to find out how people react to speech and sign and see if they react similar to each other. She did this by studying words and signs with doubling (e.g., slaflaf)—the ones that show full or partial repetition. What she found was that the responses to these forms shift, depending on their linguistic context.

People tend to avoid doubling when a word or name for just one object is presented by itself. For instance, the test subjects rated “slaflaf” (with doubling) worse than “slafmak” (with no doubling). But when doubling represented a systematic change in meaning like slaf = singular, and slaflaf = plural, then they preferred it.

Now Professor Berent wanted to find out if people who don’t even speak sign language would react the same way to doubling with sign (signs with two identical syllables just like the first example). To her surprise, the subjects responded exactly the same with signs as they did with words. They didn’t like doubling for singular objects, but preferred it with plural objects.

Professor Berent included with, “it’s not about the stimulus, it’s really about the mind, and specifically about the language system. These results suggest that our knowledge of language is abstract. Human brains can grasp the structure of language regardless of whether it is presented in speech or in sign.”

Have you ever notice how you can pick up the meaning of some signs even if you’ve never seen them before? Well this is what Professor Berent is trying to explain. Our brain our smart enough to determine what the message is trying to convey even if we have no idea what the sign really is. Our brains are built to deal with all types of different linguistic inputs.

Language is language no matter what form it takes. This is a significant find for the deaf community who’s legacy is sign language, it defines who they are and now we should all recognize the value of sign language and it’s effect on language evolution. Sign language is their identity as human beings, language defines us as a species and we need to accept sign language as a language.

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