Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The neurobiology of sign language and its implications for the neural basis of language

Abstract

THE left cerebral hemisphere is dominant for language, and many aspects of language use are more impaired by damage to the left than the right hemisphere. The basis for this asymmetry, however, is a matter of debate; the left hemisphere may be specialized for processing linguistic information1–3 or for some more general function on which language depends, such as the processing of rapidly changing temporal information4 or execution of complex motor patterns5. To investigate these possibilities, we examined the linguistic abilities of 23 sign-language users with unilateral brain lesions. Despite the fact that sign language relies on visuo-spatial rather than rapid temporal information, the same left-hemispheric dominance emerged. Correlation analyses of the production of sign language versus non-linguistic hand gestures suggest that these processes are largely independent. Our findings support the view that the left-hemisphere dominance for language is not reducible solely to more general sensory or motor processes.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. Bellugi, U., Poizner, H. & Klima, E. Trends Neurosci. 10, 380–388 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Corina, D. P., Jyotsna, V. & Bellugi, U. Science 255, 1258–1260 (1992).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Poizner, H., Klima, E. S. & Bellugi, U. What the Hands Reveal About the Brain (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Tallal, P., Miller, S. & Fitch, R. H. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 682, 27–47 (1993).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Kimura, D. Neuromotor Mechanisms in Human Communication (Oxford Univ. Press, 1993).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  6. Newport, E. & Meier, R. in The Crosslinguistic Study of Language Acquisition Vol. 1. The Data (ed. Slobin, D. I.) (Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1985).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Corina, D. & Sandler, W. Phonology 10, 165–207 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Perlmutter, D. M. Linguistic Inquiry 23, 407–442 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Klima, E. & Bellugi, U. The Signs of Language (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1979).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Lillo-Martin, D. Universal Grammar and American Sign Language: Setting the Null Argument Parameters (Kluwer Academic, Boston, MA, 1991).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Lillo-Martin, D. & Klima, E. S. in Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research Vol 1. Linguistics (eds Fischer, S. D. & Siple, P.) 191–210 (Univ. Chicago Press, 1990).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Liddell, S. American Sign Language Syntax (Mouton, New York, 1980).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Corina, D. P. in Phonetics and Phonology: Current Issues in ASL Phonology (ed. Coulter, G. R.) 63–95 (Academic, New York, 1993).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  14. Chiarello, C., Knight, R. & Mandel, M. Brain 105, 29–51 (1982).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Poizner, H. & Kegl, J. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 682, 192–213 (1993).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Goodglass, H. & Kaplan, E. The Assessment of Aphasia and Related Disorders. (Lea & Febiger, Philadelphia, 1976).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Kimura, D. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B298, 135–149 (1982).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. DeRenzi, E. & Vignolo, L. A. Brain 85, 665–678 (1962).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Osterrieth, P. A. Archs. Psychol. 30, 206–356 (1944).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Hickok, G., Bellugi, U. & Klima, E. The neurobiology of sign language and its implications for the neural basis of language. Nature 381, 699–702 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1038/381699a0

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/381699a0

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing