Getting Handy with Sign Language

By Sabrina Lewis, Class of 2016

Auslan (Australian Sign Language) is the language used across Australia, primarily by deaf individuals and their family members.

During the winter holidays I took a 1-week intensive subject: Auslan and Visual Communication.

Over the course of the week I gained a number of skills and learnt a range of interesting facts about Auslan and deaf culture.

Three things really stuck with me:

  1. Fingerspelling and the alphabet: have a go!
Can you sign your name? Author’s own image.
  1. Etiquette: Did you know its not considered rude to point at people when using sign language; it’s actually a way to enhance your conversation!
  1. Language processing and development: Sign language and spoken language differ in their appearances but are very similar in the ways they’re processed in the brain and develop in early childhood.

This got me thinking…

What really constitutes a language?

Image Credit: Kerry Foster via Flickr

Does a language have to be spoken or can it involve any form of communication?

Is it processed in a particular way?

How is it acquired during a person’s early developmental years?

So I did some further research.


The Brain and Sign Language:

Left and right side of the brain. Image Credit: TZA via Flickr

Studies suggest that like all other languages, Auslan is processed in the left hemisphere of the brain. This is the side that deals with all linguistic processing.

How do we know this?

Deaf individuals, with damage to the left side of their brain, have severely affected sign language skills. In comparison, the sign language abilities of deaf individuals with damage to the right side of their brains (this is the side involved in visual processing) are minimally affected. This has been confirmed via brain imagining techniques such as fMRI scans.

But it’s a visual language so why isn’t it processed on the visual side of the brain?

Well, actually some processing does occur on the visual side of the brain. When we observe visual gestures our brains fire signals in similar areas of the brain as to when sign language is in use. This shows that there may be an overlap between the processing of sign language and other visual cues.

However…it’s important to remember that sign language is primarily processed on the language processing side of the brain.


How do children develop sign language?

Learning to sign. Image Credit: Marilyn C. Cole via Flickr

Research has shown that deaf infants who are not exposed to language early in life have difficulties developing language skills when they reach adulthood.

It confirms that although limited exposure to language affects language development skills in later life, early exposure results in equal skill levels between sign language and spoken language users.

Both sign and spoken language starts as a babble and develops into words and structured sentences. And once children start talking or signing you can never get them to stop!


So if it is processed like a language and it develops like a language, it must be a language, right? Right!

Just as deaf individuals should receive the same treatment as hearing individuals, all sign languages should be recognised in the same way spoken languages are.