Is it better to communicate through sign language than speaking?

Which form of communication is faster: sign language or spoken language? Material prepared by the Center for the Development of the Deaf.

Are sign languages more effective in communication than spoken languages? What do scientists say about this? Today, we will tell you about the findings from research comparing American Sign Language (ASL) and English.

Research on sign languages

But let’s start from the beginning — how did such research come about in the first place? Until the 1960s, it was very challenging to study sign languages. Firstly, video recording equipment was not very good. Secondly, sign languages were perceived negatively — as a necessary evil, meaning if a person cannot learn to speak, then okay… let them sign, but signing was not seen as equal to speaking. Furthermore, hearing individuals who do not know any sign language often perceive sign language as very difficult, tiring, and one in which you cannot discuss many topics, especially those requiring more abstract thinking.

The research was initiated by Ursula Bellugi — a professor and director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute in California. Bellugi is often called the founder of ASL neurobiology. In 1972, experiments were conducted whose results show that communication in sign language is more efficient than in spoken language. Specifically, ASL proved to be more effective and more efficient than spoken English.

The speed of storytelling in sign language and spoken language

For the first study, bilingual, hearing children of deaf parents were invited. These children were equally proficient in both English and ASL. In the first stage, the speed at which children told a story in sign language and spoken language was compared. It turned out that, when measured per second, children spoke an average of just under 5 words (precisely 4.7), and when signing, they used an average of 2.3 signs per second. In general, we can say that children spoke at a rate of 5 words per second, while they signed at a rate of two signs per second.

Interestingly, conveying the content of the entire story took the same amount of time in both languages. However, to tell the story in English, children needed 210 words, while to convey the same content in ASL, they only needed 122 signs. This means that to communicate the same content, you need just under 60% more words than signs.

How to interpret such results?

But how should we interpret such results? Does this mean that spoken language is less efficient, and requires more effort? Or, on the contrary, is ASL more impoverished, and by signing, are important details omitted? The second study aimed to answer these questions. The second study consisted of two stages. In each of them, a different CODA child participated. In the first stage, the first child learned the story in English, and then translated it into ASL. In the second stage, another – the second child – participated. It did not hear the original story in English, but received the ASL translation – the translation that was performed by the first child. The task of the second child was to translate the story from ASL to English.

Scientists compared the translation made by the second child with the original story. The aim was to check whether the indirect translation into ASL would cause information to disappear from the story. However, it turned out that the resulting translation was almost identical to the original! No information was lost, even if not every word from the English language had its equivalent in the form of a sign.

How was this analysis conducted? Neuroscientists divided the signed story into sentences, checking whether the signed verbs and nouns had their equivalent in the English-language story. The analysis revealed that spoken stories contained 1.3 sentences per second compared to 1.5 per second in signed narratives. This means that ASL is 15% more effective in conveying information than spoken English.

ASL is more effective in conveying information than spoken English!

Why is this the case? Sign language is a four-dimensional language, while speech is one-dimensional. When we speak, the only dimension we use is time. Signers use time but also use space: width, height, and depth to convey meaning. Signers, through signs, visualization, and space, can convey multiple pieces of information simultaneously, whereas a speaking person cannot utter multiple words simultaneously. Of course, in spoken languages, we can express many emotions through intonation, through the manner and style of speaking, but it’s still incomparable to the capabilities of visual-spatial language.

Source: Edmund West, “Which is more efficient: talking or signing?“, British Deaf News, 2018.

Material prepared by the Center for the Development of the Deaf, which offers training in Polish Sign Language as well as courses and workshops on sign language.

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