The signing brain: What sign languages reveal about human language and the brain

Karen Emmorey

Laboratory for Language and Cognitive Neuroscience

San Diego State University

Sign languages are understood by the eye rather than by the ear and are produced by the hands rather than by the tongue. Are the same key brain areas involved in producing and comprehending spoken and signed languages? Does the brain distinguish between pantomimes and signs? The “yes” answers to these questions show that the human brain is designed for linguistic functions, regardless of the sensory-motor properties of language.

Dr. Karen Emmorey is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at San Diego State University and the Director of the Laboratory for Language and Cognitive Neuroscience, which is home to one of the most comprehensive sign language research programs in the world. She received her doctorate in Linguistics in 1987 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and she was a Senior Staff Scientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies until 2005. Dr. Emmorey’s research focuses on what sign languages can reveal about the nature of human language, cognition, and the brain. She studies the processes involved in how deaf and hearing people produce and comprehend sign language and how these processes are represented in the brain. Her other research interests include bimodal bilingualism (i.e., sign-speech bilingualism) and the neurocognitive underpinnings of reading skill in profoundly deaf adults. Dr. Emmorey is the author of 4 books and more than 100 journal articles and chapters. She currently holds several research grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.