The lovely secrets of the ‘signing’ brain

Maria Isabel Garcia
Sign language is another language, and therefore, another rich world, another empowering culture that, like any other language, expands your mind

Language is not only speech. If you think it is, then you not only missed a great part of what education had to offer, but you also have been completely ignorant of what humans around you have been demonstrating throughout the spans of their waking lives. In other words, if you confuse your mouth with your brain, then you have more problems going for you than social media backlash. When it all quiets down, you are left with just your own mouth and an eerily silent brain.

In one of my more tolerant days, I once agreed to go to a religious service that my brother and his family attend. It had a preacher who went on and on about saying that what makes us human is the gift of speech. After the service, I started to head out for the stage to talk to the preacher to tell him that he might be confusing speech with language. My brother pleaded with me not to bother. Up to now, I still regret not having approached the preacher about his severely limited concept of language and of being human. I think that is an especially dangerous mental constriction to suffer from if you are preacher. And I think it is also as dangerous, disastrous, and pathetic if you were a communications official.

Speech is language that is articulated by the mouth. But you have been a slave to your mouth if you did not know that we can also express ourselves with our hands, even our feet when we have to. So sign language is another language, and therefore, another rich world, another empowering culture, that, like any other language, expands your mind. This is not a political or social accommodation, but a fact. Sign language is not merely spoken gestures, but a complex world on its own, wiring the mind for possibilities, perhaps largely untapped for those who speak (and think) only with their mouths.

If you do sign language, then you are bilingual. This is because the brain has different codes when you sign and when you just think about a word. Those who speak and can also do sign language are not just bilinguals, but bimodal. They can speak with their mouths and their hands. This demonstrates impressive mental abilities as it involves processing of one language with the other and blending the two to produce a moving expression of any human moment. This is such a remarkable human feat that a scientific study recruited these the people so we could understand how the human brain manages the switch from one language to another.

This recent study I mentioned recruited bilinguals who were also bimodal so that researchers can see how actively the brain works when doing two languages simultaneously, switching from one language to the next. This study can only be done with those who speak and do sign language. They needed these specific humans because with those who speak only with their mouths, it is not possible for them to speak in two languages at the same time. It is only through people who are bilingual and also bimodal that researchers could separate the brain processing that happens when engaged from one language to the next, because these people can speak and sign simultaneously.

Through that study, we now know that mainly, the brain exerts more effort in switching a language off than in turning another one on. This has been scientifically observed in behavior, but this is the first time that it has been observed using tools that look at brain parts that get activated during language switching.

The finding struck me because I have always observed that largely, it is really always more difficult to unlearn than to learn something. The connections formed when you learn something which later on has to be changed because it’s wrong or it no longer applies just get so sturdy and comfortably petrified that disturbing those old connections and even severing them becomes a tough job for the brain. And by extension, if you give in to this “brain pain” and do not unlearn things, you are literally stuck.

Language-wise, this means that those who journey further into other languages, including sign language live more expansive lives and have more robust minds. Studies like this one have in fact shown that people who learn at least a second language have more brain reserves to keep Alzheimer’s away from the shores of their own selves.

I also think that this study opens up doors to the infinite worlds opened by learning a language. There are no exact translations of a language into another. Each is nuanced, slanted, diluted, sharpened, cloaked, stripped, smoked, sliced to channel the culture within which it lives. By learning another language other than your own, you enter that channel and your brain gains a channel into a world previously hidden from you. I have professional colleagues abroad who, when they came upon samu’t saring buhay as our own concept for biodiversity, are now using the former after I explained to them that samu’t saring buhay as a concept refers to life’s connections as well as its diversity.

I know 4 languages that I can either speak or write in, in different degrees. In the current generation, there are tools that can help you learn a lot more. But even with my 4 languages, with each new word or gesture I encounter in yet another language, I always feel like I have failed my human tribe because I understand so little of what goes on in the amazing spread of what it means to be human.

Many years ago, I learned how to sign “What a Wonderful World” as I sang it. A I gestured “world,” it helped me remember that the world spins – something I would not think of when I just say “world.” As I gestured “bright blessed day,” I was made aware of how the sun makes it so – something that would escape me if I just say “day.” And when I gesture “they (children) will learn much more than I will ever know,” the special outward motion from the temple away from the face hands me the wisdom that learning has no horizon. 

That is also what you extravagantly miss if you ridicule or dismiss sign language. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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