Sign language study shows multiple brain regions wired for language

April, 2010

Perhaps we should start thinking of language less as some specialized process and more as a particular approach to thought. A study involving native signers of American Sign Language adds to the increasing body of evidence that we process words in the same way as we do the concepts represented by the words; speaking (or reading) is, neutrally speaking, the same as doing.

Perhaps we should start thinking of language less as some specialized process and more as one approach to thought. A study involving native signers of American Sign Language (which has the helpful characteristic that subject-object relationships can be expressed in either of the two ways languages usually use: word order or inflection) has revealed that there are distinct regions of the brain that are used to process the two types of sentences: those in which word order determined the relationships between the sentence elements, and those in which inflection was providing the information. These brain regions are the ones designed to accomplish tasks that relate to the type of sentence they are trying to interpret. Word order sentences activated areas involved in working memory and lexical access, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the inferior frontal gyrus, the inferior parietal lobe, and the middle temporal gyrus. Inflectional sentences activated areas involved in building and analyzing combinatorial structure, including bilateral inferior frontal and anterior temporal regions as well as the basal ganglia and medial temporal/limbic areas. In other words, as an increasing body of evidence tells us, we process words in the same way as we do the concepts represented by the words; speaking (or reading) is, neutrally speaking, the same as doing.

Reference: 

[453] Newman, A. J., Supalla T., Hauser P., Newport E. L., & Bavelier D.
(2010).  Dissociating neural subsystems for grammar by contrasting word order and inflection.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107(16), 7539 - 7544.

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