The investigation of signed languages is crucial to our understanding of the neurobiology of human language, as well as to our understanding of deafness and the design of policies and programs for deaf individuals. This project is divided into three major sections, each focusing on a different facet of our general research question: What is the impact of the visual-gestural nature of sign language on the characteristics of linguistic systems and their neural and cognitive underpinnings? In Section One ("Effects of modality on language processing"), we address theoretical claims about the representation of the non-dominant hand in sign language production by examining the nature of compensatory articulation using novel "sign block" techniques (paralleling bite block experiments for speech). We also investigate the effects of language modality on the expression of spatial information, focusing on how distinct linguistic resources for encoding visual shape and viewpoint affect communication in spoken vs. signed languages. In Section Two ("The interplay between language and visual-spatial cognition"), our goals are to identify the ramifications of language modality for sign-based memory (Is visual-spatial working memory distinct from linguistic working memory for sign language?);for interactions between language and spatial cognition (Does the "spatialized" expression of locative relationships affect non-linguistic spatial categorization?);and for how perceptual categories are linguistically coded (Do iconic properties of signed languages affect linguistic encoding of sense information?). In Section Three ("The functional neural organization for language"), we use transcranial magnetic stimulation and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to investigate a) the neural systems underlying sign language production and b) the neural basis for the structural similarity between vision and sign language. We address the following specific questions: What are the optimal parameters for fMRI studies that examine overt sign production? What are the roles of the ventral intraparietal area and the posterior superior parietal lobule in sign production? How do the iconic properties of sign language (specifically, the structural mappings between classifier constructions and elements within a visual scene) impact the neural bases of language comprehension? Our overall aim is to understand the nature of sign language processing, while at the same time addressing issues of theoretical importance within linguistics, psycholinguistics, and cognitive neuroscience that also result in practical applications for deaf individuals.

Public Health Relevance

The information gained from this research will benefit individuals who are deaf and use sign language as their primary language and the educational and rehabilitative organizations that serve them. The findings will be of use in designing appropriate educational programs for deaf students, which maximally utilize knowledge of the nature of sign language and the spatial cognitive abilities of deaf people. Knowledge of where sign language is represented in the brain can potentially provide crucial information to clinicians treating deaf patients with neurological injury or disease.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
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Study Section
Language and Communication Study Section (LCOM)
Program Officer
Cooper, Judith
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San Diego State University
Other Health Professions
Schools of Allied Health Profes
San Diego
United States
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Emmorey, Karen (2014) Iconicity as structure mapping. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 369:20130301
Emmorey, Karen; McCullough, Stephen; Mehta, Sonya et al. (2014) How sensory-motor systems impact the neural organization for language: direct contrasts between spoken and signed language. Front Psychol 5:484
Baus, Cristina; Carreiras, Manuel; Emmorey, Karen (2013) When does Iconicity in Sign Language Matter? Lang Cogn Process 28:261-271
Emmorey, Karen; McCullough, Stephen; Mehta, Sonya et al. (2013) The biology of linguistic expression impacts neural correlates for spatial language. J Cogn Neurosci 25:517-33
Emmorey, Karen; Xu, Jiang; Braun, Allen (2011) Neural responses to meaningless pseudosigns: evidence for sign-based phonetic processing in superior temporal cortex. Brain Lang 117:34-8
Bosworth, Rain G; Emmorey, Karen (2010) Effects of iconicity and semantic relatedness on lexical access in american sign language. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 36:1573-81
Pyers, Jennie E; Shusterman, Anna; Senghas, Ann et al. (2010) Evidence from an emerging sign language reveals that language supports spatial cognition. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107:12116-20