Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and went to use a word and realized "oh, that's not the word I want...this is"? This language mishap happens so quickly in conversation that it often goes unnoticed; the wrong word is quickly scrapped and replaced with the proper word that the brain was looking for and the conversation moves forward seamlessly. This all is recorded to happen at 40 milliseconds, so fast it goes undetected in the conscious mind.
This same type of thing happens across all languages, even American Sign Language (ASL).
Signing is similar to speech in this way, meaning, those who sign correct themselves using the same medial frontal cortex of the brain that spoken language speakers use. When signs get confused or an error in handshape is corrected, this shows that signers put together phonological units comparable to speakers constructing the phonemes in spoken language. This was found in a San Diego State University research study conducted by Stephanie Ries and Karen Emmorey.
Ries states: "when we are doing an action, whether it's speaking, signing, pressing buttons or typing, we see the same mechanism; any time we are making a decision to do something, this neural mechanism comes into play."
Emmorey and Ries voiced a rather interesting question during this study: do those who sign see in their mind their signs like those who use spoken language hear their own voiced language in their head? "I've always been interested in what inner signing would be like, and if it's similar to inner speech," said Emmorey. "It's an internal process. When you speak, you can hear yourself. But if you're signing, are you seeing yourself like in a mirror, or is it a mental image of you signing, or a motor representation so you can feel how you sign?" There was no clear answer as ongoing research is still exploring this idea, but a great desire to understand this inner processing is out there, as it could assist educators with discovering the best strategies for teaching ASL.
Overall, ASL is not all that different from spoken language, and by continuing to study and research the ways sign language is formed in the brain could lead to huge breakthroughs in both medicine and education.
For more information on this and related topics, visit the Healthcare section of our blog.
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