Under the Hood

Learning A New Language Can Change How You Think: Sign Language May Improve Visual Skills, Even If You’re Not Deaf

It’s widely believed that losing one of your senses, such as hearing, means your other senses will improve, and now new research from the University of Sheffield has found evidence to support this idea. Their study found that deaf sign language speakers had a heightened sense of visual perception. They also found that hearing sign language users who had not practiced the language since birth had an increased sense of perception. The finding supports the idea that the language you use can affect the way you perceive the world around you.

The study, now published online on Frontiers in Psychology, found deaf adults have significantly better peripheral vision and reaction times than their hearing counterparts. According to the researchers, these exceptional visual abilities could be particularly useful in situations such as driving or playing a sport.

Read: Learning A New Language Can Change The Way You See The World

"We found that deaf adults have faster reaction times around the whole of the visual field, extending as far as 85 degrees peripherally near the edge of vision," lead study author Dr. Charlotte Codina said in a recent statement. "These findings support the common belief in sensory compensation."

hands Learning sign language could come with an unforeseen benefit. Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

However, this advantage wasn’t just restricted to deaf sign language users; hearing interpreters also demonstrated exceptional visual skills. According to the research, although the interpreters had not used the language their whole lives, they had improved their visual skills by simply practicing it in their everyday lives.

"This shows that becoming a BSL [British Sign Language}  interpreter is not only an interesting job, but it also has benefits such as making you more alert to changes in your peripheral field that could help when driving, playing sport or refereeing a football match for example," added Codina.

The study also helps back the theory that language isn’t just an expression of your mind; it also helps to shape it. Known as the Sapir-Whorf theory, named after the linguists who conceived it, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, this theory posits that the structure of a language greatly influences the thought process and behavior traits of the culture in which it is used.

Although just a theory, there is strong evidence that how you communicate affects how you think. One of the most fascinating examples of real-life application is the Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr. This language exclusively uses cardinal directions to describe location, meaning that in their language they do not say a boy is “beside” or “next to” a house, but would rather describe him as being “east,” or “west” of the house, The New York Times reported. This seems to have an impact how they viewed their surroundings, as a 1986 study showed that Aboriginal children performed higher than white Australian children on visual spatial memory tasks requiring memory for spatial location.

Although the visual perception of deaf BSL users still exceeded that of hearing BSL users, it could be that simply learning the language, even later in life, was enough to change the way the interpreters viewed their surroundings.

Source: Codina CJ, Pascalis O, Baseler HA, et al. Peripheral Visual Reaction Time Is Faster in Deaf Adults and British Sign Language Interpreters than in Hearing Adults. Frontiers In Psychology . 2017

See Also:

How Learning A New Language Changes Your Brain And Your Perception

How Learning Another Language Keeps Your Mind Sharp, No Matter Your Age

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