What Sign Language Teaches Us About the Brain

The world’s leading humanoid robot, ASIMO, has recently learnt sign language. The news of this breakthrough came just as I completed Level 1 of British Sign Language (I dare say it took me longer to master signing than it did the robot!). As a neuroscientist, the experience of learning to sign made me think about how the brain perceives this means of communicating.

For instance, during my training, I found that mnemonics greatly simplified my learning process. To sign the colour blue you use the fingers of your right hand to rub the back of your left hand, my simple mnemonic for this sign being that the veins on the back of our hand appear blue. I was therefore forming an association between the word blue (English), the sign for blue (BSL), and the visual aid that links the two. However, the two languages differ markedly in that one relies on sounds and the other on visual signs.

Do our brains process these languages differently? It seems that for the most part, they don’t. And it turns out that brain studies of sign language users have helped bust a few myths.

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