Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Handy With Words

Here's an interesting story. Geologists discover that their deaf-mute students have an uncanny ability to "read" complex landscapes and see the underlying movement and tectonics of a messy pile of boulders.

... Cooke and some colleagues are introducing students of six high schools for the deaf around the country to structural geology. About 80 students have been treated to a crash course of terminology and skills and each school built sandboxes to simulate fault systems in the classroom. After learning some of the basics, 20 of those students went to Utah to explore real faults for themselves.

The results were remarkable. During both experiments, the high school students made intuitive observations and were able to recognize geological concepts very quickly.

"I was amazed at how quickly these high school students picked up what my graduate students have problems picking up," Cooke told LiveScience.

The observations from Cooke's experiment were consistent with other findings by scientists who routinely work with those who use sign language.

It's not deafness that's the relevant factor here; it's the use of sign language.

Sign language is like poetic architecture. And like any activity, it almost certainly strengthens certain brain functions with repeated use. "There is a wealth of evidence showing that native signers, deaf or hearing, are superior to non-signers in mental generation and mental manipulation, so a spatial-reasoning task would fit in nicely," said Marc Marschark, a researcher at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

William Stokoe, an English professor at Gallaudet University (the elite deaf-mute school), was one of the first non-deaf academics to recognize the spatial-reasoning qualities of American Sign Language. "Speech has only one dimension -- its extension in time," Stokoe wrote in 1979; "writing has two dimensions; models have three; but only signed languages have at their disposal four dimensions -- the three spatial dimensions accessible to a signer's body, as well as the dimension of time. And Sign fully exploits the syntactic possibilities in its four-dimensional channel of expression."

Before I met my wonderful wife, I had a romantic relationship with a deaf-mute girl. She was a bossy, ballsy little thing with a Maxim body and a buzz-saw mind, and if I were president I'd have put her on the Supreme Court. She put herself through college in part by working as an exotic dancer at a "gentlemen's club" (she couldn't hear the tracks, but she could feel the beat and somehow sense the vibrations of the music). It was a minor aspect of a very complicated life, and she was not especially proud of that résumé item, but I was. She was like the Helen Keller of shakin' that ass.

She also rode Ducatis at 140 mph, and she fought with only a dagger and a sabre against men twice her size wielding 30-pound longswords in Ren Faire tournaments. She could do both these things well, I think, because she had what seemed to me a superhuman ability to anticipate other people's movements based on their body language, and to read the road ahead of her in terms of a set of physical actions she would need to execute to keep the bike from flying off into the trees. In fact, she could look at a close-up still photo of a motorcyclist in a race and tell you instantly and matter-of-factly what he was about to do, based on his body position.

She had been raised from birth with American Sign Language, and I really think that was what gave her her spatial superpowers. She was never so sure about that.

Stokoe, Michael C. Corballis of New Zealand, and others have proposed the "gestural theory," which holds that the original human speech was sign language, not vocal noise. This line of inquiry has led to renewed attention to "primitive" sign languages among Native Americans and other groups.

Probably we'll never know, but gestural theory has some appealing features. For instance, anthropologists have long suspected that the sudden rapid emergence of large brains in early Homo Sapiens was a result of the use of language. Yet the fossil evidence seems to show that our brains started getting bigger before our vocal systems had developed enough for articulated speech. Gestural theory does an end-run around this.

"The common ancestor of 5 or 6 million years ago would have been utterly incapable of a telephone conversation but would have been able to make voluntary movements of the hands and face that could at least serve as a platform upon which to build a language," Corballis has written. "Grammatical language may well have begun to emerge around 2 million years ago but would at first have been primarily gestural, though no doubt punctuated with grunts and other vocal cries that were at first largely involuntary and emotional."