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Neuroimage. 2005 Feb 1;24(3):832-40. Epub 2004 Nov 23.

The neural correlates of spatial language in English and American Sign Language: a PET study with hearing bilinguals.

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  • 1Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, 10010 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA.


Rather than specifying spatial relations with a closed-class set of prepositions, American Sign Language (ASL) encodes spatial relations using space itself via classifier constructions. In these constructions, handshape morphemes specify object type, and the position of the hands in signing space schematically represents the spatial relation between objects. A [15O]water PET study was conducted to investigate the neural regions engaged during the production of English prepositions and ASL locative classifier constructions in hearing subjects with deaf parents (ASL-English bilinguals). Ten subjects viewed line drawings depicting a spatial relation between two objects and were asked to produce either an ASL locative classifier construction or an English preposition that described the spatial relation. The comparison task was to name the figure object (colored red) in either ASL or in English. Describing spatial relations in either ASL or English engaged parietal cortex bilaterally. However, an interaction analysis revealed that right superior parietal cortex was engaged to a greater extent for ASL than for English. We propose that right parietal cortex is involved in the visual-motoric transformation required for ASL. The production of both English prepositions and ASL nouns engaged Broca's area to a greater extent than ASL classifier constructions. We suggest that Broca's area is not engaged because these constructions do not involve retrieval of the name of an object or the name of a spatial relation. Finally, under the same task conditions, only left parietal activation was observed for monolingual English speakers producing spatial prepositions (H. Damasio et al., 2001, NeuroImage, 13). We conclude that the right hemisphere activation observed for ASL-English bilinguals was due to their life-long experience with spatial language in ASL.

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