naomi dot berlove at tufts dot edu
What is it about the human mind that makes us capable of language? Virtually every human being learns language fluently during childhood without explicit instruction. Sign language can offer a new lens through which to understand this human capacity.
Humans are capable not only of spoken language, but also of using sign language. In my work, I investigate the mechanisms of normal sign language processing in adults who learned sign language as babies. This can shed light on the mental processes that underlie all language, and can help tease these processes apart from mental processes that are specific to a modality (signed or spoken).
Because deaf people are largely born to hearing non-signing parents, they are one of the only populations of people who are cognitively intact but do not necessarily learn language fluently in childhood without explicit instruction. Language-deprived deaf children are at risk for delayed sign language acquisition. I examine the effects of delayed sign language acquisition on cognition in order to better understand the risks of delayed language acquisition. This research can also elucidate the relationship between language and other aspects of cognition.
In 2013, in collaboration with a team of linguists, I uncovered a new sign language in the mountains in Turkey. A family with several deaf members created a language de novo a few generations ago. By understanding the properties of this language, we can better understand what humans are capable of developing in the absence of a linguistic tradition. This can provide insight as to aspects of human language that may be innate and aspects that may be learned.