Sign Language and the Deaf Brain

May 1, 2017
By , Houston, TX

Less than half a century ago, disabilities prevented many people from fulfilling lives. But today, society is providing people different opportunities that suit their needs. Language has become an essential skill that people use to speak and communicate. Because they are often unable to speak, The Deaf are often misjudged for their hearing loss. Although society often expresses a negative and stereotypical judgment of disabled people, scientific experiments have shown that deaf individuals have the same academic potential as hearing individuals.
About .38% of the newborns in the United States’  develop congenital deafness or hearing loss at birth. Because this is a common impairment, sign language scientist invented sign language. In 1760, an English neurologist named Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet created the language. Then in 1816, he introduced American Sign Language to America. ASL, the abbreviation for American Sign Language, contains hand gestures and figurative lip-reading. It requires coherent articulation using the hands and precise navigation of the fingers. Rather than having them speak, they can use sign language to communicate.

Recently published, a survey  contained 80 responses from both students and teachers. Of the 80 people, 26.3% have a relative with hearing loss or is deaf, while the remaining 73.8% did not. This indicates that deafness has increased in prevalence and become a common disorder. Surprisingly, half considered the deaf and their language to be unique. Yet, many did not believe the deaf could succeed with speaking individuals.

An addition to the survey, social media has blown the image of deaf people out of proportion. People have a difficult time understanding deaf individuals because sign language is hard to learn. Yet, an experiment  evaluated by Professor Hauser, shows that there are advantages. Hauser used visual assessments to test comprehension in deaf and hearing children. The experiment showed an increase in peripheral vision for deaf individuals. It had also showed an increase in their communication skills. Some hearing children seem to struggle to interpret words, resulting in more disagreements than deaf individuals. This is reasonable because deaf individuals focus on physical movement to interact.

As well as their advantages, Professor Hauser has found disadvantages in some individuals. Aphasia, the loss of ability to understand speech due to brain damage, is prevalent in deaf patients. Majority of dead individuals have this common ability through their hearing loss. Even with aphasia, deaf individuals still communicate and understand others. This idea shows that speakers and signers both have the ability to succeed in the same levels.

The use of stereotypes to describe demographics is common in the world today. For example, many people assume that disabilities cripple . Professor Hauser and his team members ran further tests on their subjects to examine brain activity. His team had drawn out major differences to their activated brain regions. The brain have two halves: the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere controls verbal communication while the right hemisphere controls logical thinking. Speaking activates both halves of the brain. The Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in the left hemisphere of the brain are both affected in deaf and hearing individuals. These brain regions are both affected in movement and logical thinking. The left hemisphere is dominant and crucial for both participants. This is because sign language creates activity in both of these regions in the brain.

Although Professor Hauser never studied activated brain regions in depth, Dr. Karen Emmorey  notes that there are remarkable similarities in the brain activity of hearing and deaf individuals. Dr. Emmorey found that the Broca’s area, a region involved in coordinating the movement of hands and arms, is highly activated. Signing also activates Wernicke’s area, a region in understanding written or spoken language. There are more similarities than differences in deaf and speaking individuals.

Two neurologists, Professor David Corina and Dr. Diane Clark , state that some deaf individuals show more right hemisphere parietal activation during signing than speaking. This activation would reflect differences of spatial information in the right hemisphere. “Fluency depends on a deaf individual’s age”, announced Dr. Diane Clark. Some individuals who learn sign language at an early age show signing to activate the same brain regions as speech. This means that the earlier they start learning sign language, the more likely they are to excel in their academic levels.

The media often claims that disabled individuals lack the ability to succeed, but studies oppose this belief. The Test for Creativity  tested if deaf children have the potential to be as creative as hearing children. The results showed that deaf children performed worse than hearing individuals on verbal valuations, but better in creativity. Deaf children rely on visual image and had scored 97% on fluency and 88% on flexibility while using sign language for creativity. Sign language appears to boost creativity in children. People with deafness are more capable of divergent thinking with their language. For this reason, divergent thinking in speakers is more dominant and provokes others to think out of the box. Convergent thinking is thinking in an established mind set. Unlike people with deafness, speakers have greater access to speech and score better on verbal tests.

As a result, the deaf community has progressed its way of signing to a whole new level. Since music and literature are other essentials in life, the deaf have found a way to convert signing into songs and poetry. They take songs and sign the lyrics while they sign the texts in poems. Dr. Emmorey and Professor Corina had said deaf individuals can be creative linguistically. They are also creative in the modality of their expressions. In other words, they use facial expressions or movements with their hands to show creativity. For example, an association called De’VIA  had created sign language into art. It uses elements of sign language and allows many deaf artists to convey their thoughts to people. These deaf artists will reflect their thoughts onto a colored portrait.

Above all, American Sign Language can lead deaf individuals to success with the language’s creativity and originality. ASL allows people who are born with congenital deafness to communicate with others. The Deaf and their language will soon become a large community as more and more people learn to understand them. Their activated brain regions prove that they are like speakers. Deaf individuals are capable of overcoming the obstacles they encounter in society through the use of an ingenious language.

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