Most of my last month was spent conducting Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) with students of various skill development training programs. These are short term programs, from 4-6 months, focusing on skills such as Computer Literacy, Workplace Readiness and Basic English Language. The aim is to help youth, generally from lower Socio-economic background and often school dropouts, to gain employment. Through these FGDs, we try to gauge the motivation, expectations and challenges of students.
An important thing to mention here is that all these candidates are people with disabilities including visual impairments, orthopedic disabilities and major hearing impairments. While interacting with students who are deaf and largely use sign language to communicate, I began to notice the role of spoken languages, something we often take for granted.
When the students were given a text to read, they would sign along with reading, even if they were reading to themselves. I stood in front of a silent classroom with students bending their heads over a piece of paper full of instructions. Each one of them had their own sheet which they had to read only for themselves to understand and not to communicate with anyone. Yet, I saw them signing while reading.
It was odd for me as I couldn’t see any apparent reason to do this. Upon reflection, I realized I would do the same. I’d usually read in my head but if the instructions were complicated or written in a language I wasn’t fluent in, I would probably read it out loud so I could hear myself. While doing that, I would also quickly translate each sentence into the language that I am comfortable with, the language that I think in. That’s probably what all the students in my class were doing too.
Were they thinking in sign language?
Does that even make sense?
Does thinking in a particular language shape your thoughts?
I don’t know.
I recently got to know about a concept called Linguistic relativity. It says that the structure of a language influences the speaker’s world view. In 2009, Jennie Pyers, a professor at Wellesley College started studying Nicaraguan sign language (NSL). She found that the earlier form of NSL had no signs for spatial indicators (words like “to the left of”, “inside”, “on”) which led to individuals performing poorly on spatial reasoning tasks where they had to find an object hidden in a room. Later, she performed the same tasks with another set of individuals who had used an advanced form of sign language which included signs for spatial indicators. This group outperformed the first group only because of their expanded vocabulary.
Pyers also found that children who didn’t use sign language also made mistakes in this spatial reasoning task. However, those mistakes were different from that of the first group. The two main observations were as follows:
- Children made more mistakes than adults
- Children reported the task as super easy (even though they were giving incorrect answers)
Pyers believes that this difference indicates the value of maturity and experience in the adult group. They were aware of their inability to perform the task. Their spatial reasoning skills were dependent on their language to an extent, that even their age could not compensate. This study provides evidence that there are certain aspects of human cognition that are dependent on our language learning.
So, what does it mean for those who use sign language? Are they doomed to have poorer spatial reasoning skills? I don’t think so. Languages are constantly evolving and changing. Most of the spoken languages that we have today are being used for centuries (For example, Hindi has been around since 7th Century AD). By virtue of this, these languages have only grown richer and now encompass a diverse and comprehensive vocabulary. In contrast, the oldest record of a formal sign language is in the 18th Century. The late evolution of sign language is a direct consequence of the marginalization of this community who was not deemed worthy of education and inclusion into mainstream society.
It’s convenient to consider poorer spatial skills of the group in Pyers’ study as evidence but isn’t it worth delving deeper. Could it not be a consequence of systematic discrimination of communities since ages?