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  • Destiny Yarbro

Areas of the Brain Activated When Learning Signed Languages

I found this week’s Schunk (2012) chapter to be absolutely fascinating! The readings made me curious as to whether the same regions of the brain used in spoken/audial language are also used in visual/tactile sign languages as this information would directly help me in teaching sign language courses.

I learned that the left frontal regions of the brain are used for both spoken and signed language. Campbell, MacSweeney, & Waters (2008) warn that “it would be a mistake to believe that signed languages are exclusively spatial and nonsequential in their linguistic structures,” so although the left perisylvian regions (the temporal lobes) are “very close to auditory processing regions... language processing is not determined by the auditory input modality.” This said, my post today will focus on the parietal and occipital lobes of the brain as these are used in the reception and production of sign languages.

Parietal Lobe:

The parietal lobe processes tactile stimuli such as “temperature, body position, and sensations of pain and pressure” and uses this information “to provide spatial body awareness, or knowing where the parts of your body are at all times” (Schunk, 2012, p. 36). In the context of language acquisition, the parietal lobe is where students tactically produce sign language to convey meaning.

Just like a tennis or piano teacher, I help my students train their bodies to convey foundational sign language concepts, such as handshapes, places of articulation, orientation, movement, and facial expressions, by breaking down complex tactile linguistics into an achievable “set of units” (Malaia & Wilbur, 2010). It is not uncommon for first year sign language students to see my hand position, attempt to imitate me, but only afterwards realize that their hand was not making the correct shape. When I read about the parietal lobe’s role in “knowing where the parts of your body are at all times,” I thought of how this part of the brain must work overtime while learning sign! (Schunk, 2012, p.36).

Occipital Lobe:

The occipital lobe processes visual stimuli such as “motion, color, depth, distance,” comparing and storing any new information as perception (Schunk, 2012, p. 35). In the context of sign language acquisition, the occipital lobe is where students visually receive the language from others which is in contrast to the auditory cortex of the brain which is the receiver for spoken languages and compute meaning (Brookshire, et al. 2017).

This difference in receptive areas of the brain for spoken and signed languages taught me why a language learning trick I stumbled upon eight years ago works well for hearing sign language students. (It was while tutoring hearing students that I realized a different teaching approach was needed.) Fingerspelling, the dreaded skill for all sign language newbies, is when a signer spells out an English word using handshape letters. This skill is challenging because a nervous student can easily miss the intricate letter handshapes being produced by another signer. I found that hearing students did best when they “sounded out” the word fingerspelled to them. For example, rather than thinking the names of the letters C-A-T, they understand a rapidly fingerspelled word more quickly if they read the word as if they were in Kindergarten again and sounding out the word CAT in their primary reader (most likely a well-trained skill for their auditory complexes). Of course, this particular teaching approach would hinder rather than help Deaf students who better comprehend using shapes, movement, and positions for fingerspelling comprehension (their occipital lobes) than auditory recognition like their hearing counterparts.


Brookshire, G., Lua, J., Nusbauma, H., Goldin-Meadowa, S., & Casasantoa, D. (2017, June 13.) Visual cortex entrains to sign language. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(24).

Campbell, R., MacSweeney, M., and Waters, D. (2008). Sign language and the brain: A review. The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, (13)1, 3-20.

Malaia, E., & Wilbur, R. B. (2010). Early acquisition of sign language What neuroimaging data tell us. Sign language and linguistics, 13(2), 183–199.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: an educational perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.


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