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Karen Emmorey Karen Emmorey
 


Sign Language Discoveries Surprisingly Similar to Speech

SDSU speech language professor Karen Emmorey presents research at the AAAS conference.
By Golda Akhgarnia
 

“It’s on the tip of my tongue!”

We’ve all experienced that frustrating moment of trying to recall someone’s name. We’re able to remember details about the person, such as where we met them or where they work, but are hard pressed to remember their name. The tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon happens in spoken language all the time, and now a new study from San Diego State University finds that it also occurs in sign language.

Tip of the finger

Karen Emmorey, professor in the SDSU School of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, says evidence shows that despite being unspoken, a similar occurrence exists in American Sign Language (ASL) and is referred to as the tip of the finger (TOF) phenomenon.

It was also found that sign language activates a different part of the brain than hand gestures used for pantomime. These new discoveries prove that signed and spoken languages are far more similar than previously thought.

“TOFs show us that signs are not holistic gestures—meaning and form can be retrieved independently,” said Emmorey. “The brain also distinguishes between signs that look like pantomimes and true pantomimic gestures. These new findings give us a deeper understanding of language and the brain processes it.”

Similar to TOTs, TOFs occur spontaneously, commonly involve proper names and frequently include partial access to the form of the word. For example, signers are able to retrieve a sign’s hand shape, location and orientation but have a more difficult time remembering its movement, just as speakers can often only recall the first sound of the word.

Language and the brain

Researchers have also found that bilingual speakers have more TOTs than monolinguals (those who speak only one language), so Emmorey and her colleagues set out to find if this held true for bilingual speakers who speak one language and sign another.

In a study with monolingual and bilingual speakers, it was found that someone who signs and speaks English had more TOTs than monolinguals and equivalent TOTs as Spanish–English bilinguals. Essentially, a bilingual speaker who uses each language less frequently than a monolingual speaker will have more incidents of TOTs/TOFs.

Emmorey’s most recent research focuses on examining areas of the brain involved with signing versus speaking.

She examined the brain to see if the same regions were used when a hand movement was meant for sign language versus when it was a pantomime. Findings showed that sign language was associated with the specific portion of the brain meant for language, and gesture production was associated with a different area.

AAAS presentations

Emmorey presented her research on Feb. 19 during one of eleven prestigious topical lectures at this weekend's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, held in San Diego on Feb. 19, from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. The meeting brings together a diverse array of leading scientists, engineers, educators and policy-makers from the U.S., as well as more than 50 countries.

Also presenting research at the conference are SDSU professors Rebecca Lewison, Stanley Maloy and James Sallis. On Feb. 21, from 10:30 a.m. to noon, Lewison will present her research on bycatch in the context of understanding the effect of fisheries’ bycatch on wide-ranging megafaunal species.

Maloy will discuss microbial underpinnings of environmental, animal and human health on Feb. 20, from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Sallis will participate in a symposium, titled "Community Design, Physical Activity, Eating & Obesity: Evidence for Policy & Practice," where he will demonstrate how factors outside of the health system have widespread effects on health through physical activity and diet. The symposium takes place on Feb. 20, from 8:30 to 10 a.m.

About AAAS

AAAS is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association. In addition to organizing membership activities, AAAS publishes the journal Science, as well as many scientific newsletters, books and reports, and spearheads programs that raise the bar of understanding for science worldwide.