Language, Cognition, and the Brain: Insights from Sign Language Research

Language, Cognition, and the Brain: Insights from Sign Language Research

Language, Cognition, and the Brain: Insights from Sign Language Research

Language, Cognition, and the Brain: Insights from Sign Language Research

Synopsis

Once signed languages are recognized as natural human languages, a world of exploration opens up. Signed languages provide a powerful tool for investigating the nature of human language and language processing, the relation between cognition and language, and the neural organization of language. The value of sign languages lies in their modality. Specifically, for perception, signed languages depend upon high-level vision and motion processing systems, and for production, they require the integration of motor systems involving the hands and face. These facts raise many questions: What impact does this different biological base have for grammatical systems? For online language processing? For the acquisition of language? How does it affect nonlinguistic cognitive structures and processing? Are the same neural systems involved? These are some of the questions that this book aims at addressing. The answers provide insight into what constrains grammatical form, language processing, linguistic working memory, and hemispheric specialization for language. The study of signed languages allows researchers to address questions about the nature of linguistic and cognitive systems that otherwise could not be easily addressed.

Excerpt

The aim of this book is to illustrate what can be learned about human language, cognition, and the brain by studying signed languages and the Deaf people who use them. The book brings together and summarizes new and recent research and is written for the general reader who has an interest in sign language, linguistics, cognitive psychology, or behavioral neuroscience. The introductory chapter (chap. 1) lays out and debunks common misconceptions about sign language that are still present today. This chapter also describes the “homesign to pidgin to creole” progression that characterizes the emergence of sign languages and highlights what the study of signed languages reveals about the nature of language genesis and the processes that give rise to the birth of a language. The second part of chapter 1 characterizes the composition of the deaf population in the United States and the culture of Deaf people who are the primary users of American Sign Language (ASL).

Chapter 2 summarizes recent major findings concerning the structure of ASL from the sublexical (phonological) level to the level of discourse. The chapter outlines aspects of signed language structure that parallel those found in spoken languages and highlights linguistic variation attributable to the visuospatial modality. These studies help us to understand what aspects of linguistic structure are universal to human language and what aspects are influenced by the aural-oral or the visual-gestural modalities of linguistic perception and production. In addition, this chapter provides the linguistic background for the remainder of the book.

Chapter 3 focuses on the unique functions of space in signed languages and characterizes ASL “classifier” constructions that are used to indicate . . .

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